Seth Rosenfeld, Chronicle Staff Writer
Sunday, April 26, 2009
Memorial services will be held in early May for Richard Masato Aoki,
an Oakland native who was interned as a boy during World War II and
later played a key role in the Black Panther Party and the 1969 Third
World Liberation Front strike at UC Berkeley.
Mr. Aoki was 70 and died at an Oakland hospital on March 15 after
suffering from complications related to diabetes, according to friends.
He became the highest ranking Asian member of the Black Panther Party
in the late '60s and worked for 25 years as a teacher, counselor and
interim dean at the Peralta Community College District. All along, he
urged students to pursue higher education and fight for social justice.
"He played a positive role in terms of reaching out to different
races and ethnicities," said Harvey Dong, a friend since 1968.
"His whole life was political because of the circumstances his family
went through," Dong added.
Born in 1938, Mr. Aoki was 4 when his family was interned at Topaz,
Utah, one of 10 "relocation centers" set up during World War II to
isolate West Coast Japanese Americans.
Released in 1945, the family returned to Oakland, said James Aoki, a
cousin. Mr. Aoki and his younger brother were raised in a rough West
Oakland neighborhood, where he became friends with future Black
Panther leader Huey Newton, Mr. Aoki recalled in a 2007 interview.
His mother moved the family to Berkeley and he enrolled at Berkeley
High School, where he excelled academically. In a pattern that would
define his life, he reached across ethnic lines, joining an
interracial boys club that was unusual for the era called the Saints,
said high school class mate Earl Napper.
Just three days after graduating in 1957, he went on active duty in
the U.S. Army. "He wanted to become the first Asian American
four-star general," said his friends Barbara and Oliver Petry.
Mr. Aoki served for eight years and was honorably discharged in 1964.
While attending Merritt College in Oakland, he joined the youth
branch of the Socialist Workers Party. Also at Merritt, he was
reunited with Newton and met Bobby Seale, fellow students with whom
he often discussed radical politics.
When Seale and Newton formed the Black Panther Party in 1966, they
took their "10 Point Program" to Mr. Aoki for his comments on it, Seale said.
And when the Panthers began what they called community patrols of
Oakland police officers to counter alleged brutality, Mr. Aoki gave
Newton and Seale some of their first guns, both Seale and Mr. Aoki
later said. It was then legal to carry uncon-cealed weapons, and Dong
said Aoki's gesture was symbolic.
Although his role was not then widely known, Mr. Aoki became a Black
Panther Party field marshal.
In 1966 he transferred to UC Berkeley, where he earned a master's
degree in social work. He helped establish the Asian American
Political Alliance on campus, which joined with Chicano, black and
Native American student groups in 1969 to form the Third World
During the nearly-two month campus strike in 1969, Gov. Ronald Reagan
declared a state of emergency and sent in the National Guard.
As a result of the strike, UC Berkeley established one of the
nation's first ethnic studies programs. Mr. Aoki was an early
coordinator of the Asian American Studies program, but left to work
at Peralta Community College District in Oakland, where he taught and
counseled students, retiring in 1998.
"He really made a difference in a lot of young peoples' lives," said
Dr. Naomi P.F. Southard, who was a pastor at Lake Park United
Mr. Aoki was the last surviving member of his family.
Public memorials are planned for 1 p.m. Saturday at Wheeler
Auditorium on the UC Berkeley campus, on May 3 at 11 a.m. at
DeFremery Park, and at 2 p.m. at Chapel of the Chimes, both in Oakland.
Details are at www. ramemorial.blogspot.com.
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