1938 – 2009
Dedicated to human rights and dignity
Richard Aoki is best known for his leadership in the Black Panther Party (BPP) in Oakland and the early Asian American movements in Berkeley. His desire for human rights and dignity propelled his activist commitments as well as his social work career.
Born in San Leandro, California, and raised in Oakland and Berkeley, as well as the Topaz, Utah concentration camp during World War II, Aoki joined the U.S. Army right out of high school and later attended Oakland City College. He earned his B.A. in Sociology and master’s degree in social welfare at U.C. Berkeley, where he was elected President of the Berkeley Social Welfare Student Union (1969-70).
Aoki met Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, future co-founders of the Black Panther Party (BPP), in the mid-1960s at Merritt College, a stronghold of Black Nationalism. Aoki became the highest ranking non-black in the BPP, serving as captain of the small Berkeley chapter and as a field marshal. Aoki supported the party’s police patrols, political education and other efforts to counter racism and poverty. He also drew connections between racism against Blacks and Asian Americans.
As a student at Berkeley in the 1960s, Aoki’s experiences made him ripe for political leadership. He was a founding member of the Asian American Political Alliance (AAPA), the organization credited with coining the term “Asian American.” As chair of AAPA in winter 1969, Aoki became one of the most visible leaders of U.C. Berkeley’s Third World strike. The 10-week strike resulted in the establishment of ethnic studies, critiqued the function of higher education, and inserted a strong community service component in the ethnic studies curriculum. Aoki was one of the first coordinators and instructors in Berkeley’s Asian American Studies program.
In 1970, Aoki was invited to teach the first Asian American studies course at Merritt College and hired as a full-time counselor. For more than 25 years, he worked as a counselor, instructor and interim administrator in the Peralta Community College District. As a counselor, Aoki developed a pipeline from the community colleges to U.C. Berkeley. He worked tirelessly to help students from marginalized backgrounds. He also worked in unorthodox ways, including accompanying students to courtroom hearings when they faced arrest. He also initiated and taught the first Asian American studies course at the College of Alameda. He was particularly influential in the Peralta Community College District, serving twice as president of the Academic Senate or Faculty Senate and as president of the Peralta Association of Pacific Asian Americans.