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Sun, 11.20.1938

Richard Aoki, Activist born

Richard Aoki

*Richard Aoki was born on this date in 1938. He was a Japanese American activist.

Richard Masato Aoki was born in San Leandro, California, to Japanese-American parents. One of two sons, his father, was from Oakland, and his mother was from Berkley, CA. During World War II, He and his family were interned at the Topaz War Relocation Center in Utah from 1942 to 1945. They moved back to Oakland, California, after World War II ended. Aoki spent eight years serving in the United States Army, first as a medic and later in the infantry and as a weapons expert.

He attended Merritt College for two years, where he became close friends with his longtime acquaintances Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, the founding members of the Black Panther Party; the organization was founded in October 1966, one month after Aoki transferred to the University of California, Berkeley.  He was one of the first members and was eventually promoted to "Field Marshall." Although there were several Asian Americans in the Black Panther Party, Aoki was the only one to have a formal leadership position.

He graduated with a bachelor's degree in sociology in 1968 and a Master of Social Work degree in 1970. Aoki was also a spokesperson for the Asian American Political Alliance, which supported the Black Panther Party and was the nation's first known pan-Asian political organization. The group was anti-war and supported a Third World College and Ethnic Studies program.

At memorial services for party co-founder Huey Newton, who was killed on Aug. 22, 1989, Aoki attended in full Panther uniform: a black beret, black leather jacket, and shades. “What makes him a person of historical significance was his leadership in the struggle for social justice,” said Diane Fujino, professor of Asian American studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and co-writer of Aoki’s biography.

In later years, the FBI released records about Aoki in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.  A Nov. 16, 1967, intelligence report on the Black Panthers lists Aoki as an “informant” with the code number “T-2.”

On March 15, 2009, Richard Aoki died at his home in Berkeley from complications from dialysis.  His life was chronicled in the 2009 documentary film Aoki.



B&W Image: Shoshana Arai

Richard Masato Aoki Memorial

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