Bobby Seale. Eldridge Cleaver. Huey Newton. These names often come to mind when the Black Panther Party is the topic at hand. But in recent years, there’s been an effort to familiarize the public with a Panther who’s not so well known—Richard Aoki. What distinguished Aoki from others in the black radical group? He was the only founding member of Asian descent. A third-generation Japanese American from the San Francisco Bay area, Aoki not only played a fundamental role in the Panthers, he also helped to establish an Ethnic Studies program at the University of California, Berkeley. The late Aoki’s biography reveals a man who counteracted the passive Asian stereotype and embraced radicalism to make long-lasting contributions to both the African- and Asian-American communities.
A Radical Is Born
Richard Aoki was born Nov. 20, 1938, in San Leandro, Calif. His grandparents were Issei, first-generation Japanese Americans, and his parents were Nisei, second-generation Japanese Americans. He spent the first few years of his life in Berkeley, Calif., but his life underwent a major shift after World War II. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, xenophobia against Japanese Americans reached unparalleled heights in the U.S. The Issei and Nisei were not only held responsible for the attack but also generally regarded as enemies of the state still loyal to Japan. As a result, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 in 1942. The order mandated that individuals of Japanese origin be rounded up and placed in internment camps. Aoki and his family were evacuated to a camp in Topaz, Utah, where they lived without indoor plumbing or heating.
“Our civil liberties were grossly violated,” Aoki told the "Apex Express" radio show of being relocated. “We were not criminals. We were not prisoners of war.”
During the politically tumultuous 1960s and ’70s, Aoki developed a militant ideology directly in response to being forced into an internment camp for no reason other than his racial ancestry.
Life After Topaz
After his discharge from the Topaz internment camp, Aoki settled with his father, brother and extended family in West Oakland, a diverse neighborhood that many African Americans called home. Growing up in that part of town, Aoki encountered blacks from the South who told him about lynchings and other acts of severe bigotry. He connected the treatment of blacks in the South to incidents of police brutality he’d witnessed in Oakland.
“I began putting two and two together and saw that people of color in this country really get unequal treatment and aren’t presented with many opportunities for gainful employment,” he said.
After high school, Aoki enlisted in the U.S. Army, where he served for eight years. As the war in Vietnam began to escalate, however, Aoki decided against a military career because he didn’t fully support the conflict and wanted no part in the killing of Vietnamese civilians. When he returned to Oakland following his honorable discharge from the army, Aoki enrolled in Merritt Community College, where he discussed civil rights and radicalism with future Panthers Bobby Seale and Huey Newton.
A Student Militant
Aoki read the writings of Marx, Engels and Lenin, standard reading for radicals in the 1960s. But he wanted to be more than just well read. He also wanted to effect social change. That opportunity came along when Seale and Newton invited him to read over the Ten-Point Program that would form the foundation of the Black Panther Party. After the list was finalized, Newton and Seale asked Aoki to join the newly formed Black Panthers. Aoki accepted after Newton explained that being African American wasn’t a prerequisite to join the group. He recalled Newton saying:
“The struggle for freedom, justice and equality transcends racial and ethnic barriers. As far as I’m concerned, you black.”
Aoki served as a field marshal in the group, putting his experience in the military to use to help members defend the community. Soon after Aoki became a Panther, he, Seale and Newton took to the streets of Oakland to pass out the Ten-Point Program. They asked residents to tell them their top community concern. Police brutality emerged as the No. 1 issue. Accordingly, the BPP launched what they called “shotgun patrols,” which entailed following the police as they patrolled the neighborhood and observing as they made arrests. “We had cameras and tape recorders to chronicle what was going on,” Aoki said.