Richard Aoki, Panther and Revolutionary, 1938 - 2009

Revolutionary activist Richard Aoki, 71, passed away on Sunday, March 15th.  Although it was not known for many years, he was the first Asian-American to join the Black Panther Party, as well as being one of the first members.  He played a key role in the Party's political development, provided them with their initial weapons and became a Field Marshal in 1968.  This profile originally appeared in the Oakland Tribune.

The struggle wasn't just black and white

Asian-Americans dubbed 'Yellow Panthers' helped form militant group

MOMO CHANG / Oakland Tribune 8oct2006

Richard Aoki remained incognito to the world outside the Black Panther Party until the early 1990s, when he came out as a charter member of the revolutionary group that was birthed in West Oakland. "It was a closely guarded secret," said Aoki, one of six Asian Americans among the 5,000 official members of the Black Panther Party.

But 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 is 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 forthcoming biography.

In the years following Newton's funeral, more stories appeared about the "Yellow Panther" and the pivotal role he played in the development of the Black Panthers, though little has been published about who he is.

Born in San Leandro, Aoki was not yet 4 years old when the United States entered World War II. His family was forced, along with 120,000 other Japanese and Japanese Americans, to relocate to "concentration" camps.

After the war, Aoki, his father and grandparents resettled in West Oakland. The neighborhood once populated with families of Japanese, Italian, Polish and Greek descent had turned into a predominantly black ghetto, where many had migrated from Southern states for defense jobs.

Aoki said the community was a tight-knit one, and he knew of the Newton, Seale and Hilliard families early on. But it wasn't until he attended Merritt College that he became close friends with Newton, a pre-law major, and Bobby Seale, another party co-founder.

Aoki transferred to the University of California, Berkeley in 1966, but didn't lose touch with his West Oakland friends. The month he transferred, Seale and Newton founded the revolutionary organization, in October 1966.

"Bobby and Huey came up with this program, the 10-point program, and they ran it by me," said Aoki, who was heavily involved in Marxist-Leninist ideology by then.

"I was one of the first to join (the Black Panther Party)," he added. Aoki also started a Berkeley chapter and recruited new members, including two other Asian Americans.

He said it was partly his upbringing in the mostly black, post-World War II West Oakland neighborhood that tied him to the black community. He had arrived at the notion that a revolutionary, black nationalist group was the path to liberation, he said.

Aoki joined the U.S. Army for eight years, serving as a medic and later in the infantry, where he was trained as an expert in small arms and sharpshooting. He was honorably discharged after he became adamantly opposed to the Vietnam War, but managed to utilize his military skills in the Black Panther Party. He became a party field marshal in 1968.

In fact, lore has it that Aoki provided the party with its first guns and trained members as part of a program to patrol the police in Oakland, "which, at that time, was running roughshod over the people in the community," he said.

Aoki said he provided them with small rifles, pistols and shotguns.

He also provided them a different type of arms — political education. Newton, Seale and Aoki often discussed political ideology, including communist leader Mao Tse-tung's "little red book."

The year Aoki was appointed the party's field marshal was the same that UC Berkeley and San Francisco State students became embroiled in the tumultuous Third World student strikes.

It was also the same year that, in the mainstream media, Asians were pitted against blacks as the "model minority," said Fujino, who wrote "Heartbeat of Struggle" documenting another revolutionary, Yuri Kochiyama.

Aoki became a spokesperson for the Asian American Political Alliance, which supported the Black Panther Party and was the first known pan-Asian political organizations in the nation. The group was anti-war and supported a Third World College and Ethnic Studies program.

To this day, Aoki remains solidly supportive of the Panthers and keeps in touch with members of the organization.

"The Black Panther Party not only talked the talk, but walked the walk," he said, adding that during the years the party was active, crime declined in Oakland.

Aoki became one of the first coordinators of the Asian American studies program at UC Berkeley, and was there for three years. He spent the next 25 years as an instructor, counselor and administrator in the Peralta Colleges.

Though Aoki, now 67, has been plagued by ill health recently, he has spoken out for some causes publicly.

This summer, when Bob Watada, father of the first Army lieutenant to publicly refuse deployment to Iraq, visited the area, Aoki spoke in support of the younger Watada at a meeting in Berkeley.

"I managed to get one political blow in despite my disability," he said.


This is a trailer for a documentary on his life, Richard Aoki:


People in this conversation

  • Guest - Linda D.

    Thank you for posting this!! Aoki remained stalwart and inspirational until the very end. For Black History Month, there were several programs aired about the Panthers, and great anecdotal interviews with Aoki. He passed away on March 15th...and he will be sorely missed!

  • Guest - Linda D.

    I want to add the following that I rec'd from the Aoki Commemorative Committee:

    Richard Masato Aoki, 1938-2009.

    Fearless Leader and Servant of the People

    It is with deep sadness that we inform you that Richard Aoki, due to complications from longstanding medical problems, passed away on March 15, 2009.

    Born on November 20, 1938, Richard was a righteous fighter and a warrior in the truest sense - he dedicated his life to his beliefs and the struggle for human rights. He was a field marshal in the Black Panther Party, a founding member of the Asian American Political Alliance, a leader in the Third World Liberation Front Strike at UC Berkeley, co-ordinator for the first Asian American Studies program at UC Berkeley, an advisor for Asians for Job Opportunities, a counselor, instructor and administrator at Merritt and Alameda Colleges.

    We will remember him for the personal impact he made on our lives and the social impact he made on the community movements of people of all colors:

    "...Based on my experience, I´ve seen where unity amongst the races has yielded positive results. I don´t see any other way for people to gain freedom, justice, and equality here except by being internationalist."

    - Richard Aoki

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