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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The real-life inspiration for Nintendo’s Kirby battled for black voters, against police brutality

John Kirby Sr. sits in between takes of a documentary his son is creating about the various movements during the 1960s. (John Kirby Jr.)

John Joseph Kirby, a Washington, D.C., native, was an attorney who helped lay the foundation of equitable voting rights policies in the United States and who worked toward law enforcement accountability during social unrest. Kirby, who died in October at age 79, also spent time as a civil servant and activist who bore witness to modern democracy’s greatest and ongoing challenges.

He is also the inspiration behind the name of Nintendo’s arguably cutest video game character, Kirby, a pink celestial being that seeks justice in the universe.

The short story behind the origins of Kirby’s name is that John Kirby was Nintendo’s attorney and won a landmark trademark case that allowed the then-growing video game company to keep using the name Donkey Kong. Donkey Kong’s games eventually turned the fledgling Japanese company into a household name and global giant in consumer electronics. But the legal career of the real-life Kirby was much more extensive.

Before Kirby’s death, his son, also John Kirby, began directing a documentary on civil rights movements in the 1960s. The son, having grown up with video games, always knew of his father’s legacy as a Nintendo character. But it wasn’t until the younger Kirby, 47, started doing his research that he realized the importance of his father’s work.

“I knew my dad had been an intern at the Justice Department during the Kennedy administration, and a lawyer during the Johnson administration,” the son said to The Washington Post. “But he got sick, and only when he did his interview with us did I realize the full extent of what he had done.”

Four years after the creation of the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department in 1957, Kirby became its first summer intern. It was his job, then, to discover how black citizens were excluded from voter registration.

He dispatched FBI agents across the country. When he got documents from Leflore County, Miss., he noticed alarmingly complicated and prohibitive questions on voter applications. The majority of the county was black, but that segment of the population had unusually low voter registration. The reason was a local requirement asking potential registrants to interpret a complicated section of the state constitution.

“This section would frequently be 25, 35 lines long, and I would say the most experienced lawyer in the world couldn’t figure out exactly what it was and what it required,”the elder Kirby said in unedited footage of his son’s documentary.

His findings contributed to federal civil rights policies in the 1960s, including the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

He later began a career at the Justice Department, becoming a sort of “late 60s Zelig,” according to his son, a reference to the hapless Woody Allen hero whose life intersected with great historical figures.

Kirby was assigned to look into domestic hot spots of civil unrest. His mission was to bring civil rights into law enforcement, particularly during the riots of the 1960s. He developed procedures for greater police accountability for why protesters were being arrested, as well as ensuring protesters received legal representation and medical attention.

Kirby was eventually tagged as a “civil unrest” expert and was sent to Detroit during the riots often referred to as the “long, hot summer of 1967,” the March on the Pentagon against the Vietnam War, and to Memphis after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

His career as a public servant ended after he witnessed police brutality during the 1968 protests and riots of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago where even onlookers and bystanders were beaten by police, according to archival news reports.

What happened in Chicago in 1968, and why is everyone talking about it now?

“So there were people running through the street, police pursuing them and beating them … it was basically a police riot,” the elder Kirby said in the footage. “I don’t think anything effective was done by anybody.”

He recalled racing through Grant Park, trying to take down badge numbers of officers and trying, and failing, to restore order. The sight spurred him out of public service and into private practice.

“It broke his heart, because he had planned on having a career spending most of his time in public service,” the younger Kirby said. “He witnessed the new frontier and the idealism of the Kennedy years turn into the breakdown of civil society. The promises of a great society were shot down in the battlefields of Vietnam.”

Yet two years after Kirby left public service, the Justice Department was overseeing a new Commission on Campus Unrest, in response to soldiers from the National Guard killing student protesters at Kent State. Kirby initially refused, but was later coaxed by his firm and eventually returned to Washington.

His report on campus unrest included recommending against using live ammunition for troops involved in crowd control. The report was met with political derision. Nixon’s vice president, Spiro Agnew, called it “scapegoating of the most irresponsible sort,” according to a 1970 report from the Harvard Crimson.

Kirby’s next milestone came when a then-little-known Japanese company named Nintendo asked his firm for help. The company was being sued by Universal Studios, claiming that their game Donkey Kong infringed on its 1976 remake of the film “King Kong.”

Kirby won the fight, and it became a landmark decision now cited in legal texts. Ever grateful, Nintendo knew that one of Kirby’s sons was learning how to sail. The company bought him a 27-foot sailboat, christened “Donkey Kong,” and humorously granted the attorney the exclusive right to use the name in perpetuity, but just for sailboats.

The company’s appreciation didn’t end there. In 1992, the Kirby family received an early copy of a game for Nintendo’s original handheld platform, Game Boy. The game was titled “Kirby’s Dream Land.” The family name would become a hero to millions of children, spawning a series 20 games strong that has sold 34 million copies worldwide.

“He didn’t talk to us a lot about that time,” the son said. “Kirby came out after I was done with video games, but my brother had a whole Kirby-themed wedding.”

The younger Kirby said the name came from a Nintendo friend of his father’s, who remarked that the Kirby character was “a round pink ball full of hot air, just like you!”

The son calls the event “a strange sort of immortality,” but he will always think of his father’s work for progressive change as the more enduring legacy.

The documentary is expected to be finished in 2021 and will focus on the 1960s and four major American assassinations. The title is “Four Died Trying.”

“The film will be dedicated to my father, who also tried,” he said.

The sense of loss and disillusionment that overwhelmed the elder Kirby in the late 1960s seems to have stayed with him. In his son’s documentary footage, the father lamented that the quality of people running for office is “abysmally low” and that party politics have only made things worse.

“There has been little sense of moral purpose, and a great sense that the country has never recovered, that it lost its way at some undefined point, and has not found it again,” the father said in the footage.

As his son continued the interview, his father furrowed his brow and clarified that he’s not an expert at gauging the national mood. Then he remembered the people who tried to do good.

“We all know a lot of people who opine about a lot of things,” the father said in the footage. “But there were people who refused to be disillusioned. There are people who went to work and have done great things. There have been loads of people who, and some of them are younger, who were out on the front lines and trenches, working toward achieving better things for us, for the society."