Times Past

Dan Krieger: Scholarship represents war internee’s legacy

‘Dec. 7, 1941, is one day I shall remember till I die,” he wrote. “I was stunned! How I hated Japan. I was bitter because all my future hopes were shattered and gone.”

Fresno-born George Aki was studying to be ordained a minister in the Congregational Church at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley at the outbreak of the war with Japan.

In February 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the infamous War Relocation Order 9066 calling for the internment of all persons of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast.

Just days before his graduation, George and his new wife, Misaki, joined 6,000 Issei and Nisei — Japanese immigrants and their American-born children — from the Bay Area at the now-demolished Tanforan Racetrack in San Bruno, near San Francisco.

Housed in horse stables, they were prisoners of their own country.

He wrote in his diary, “George Aki died on May 6, 1942!”

“I couldn’t believe that this was happening to me. My future had been changed by the signature of President Roosevelt. I was being relocated without due process. I wouldn’t graduate or be ordained.”

The Rev. Robert Inglis of the Plymouth Congregational Church of Oakland organized an ecclesiastical council of 15 white ministers. The group went to Tanforan and ordained George in a mess hall in front of 500 Japanese-Americans.

George went on to serve as chaplain to the 442nd Infantry, the most highly decorated regiment in the history of the United States Armed Forces. The regiment included 21 Medal of Honor recipients.

In 1960, George became the minister at the Congregational Church of San Luis Obispo, where he served until retirement in 1978. He left his mark on many organizations, such as the Community Counseling Center and Hotline.

Because he understood what it was to be an “outsider” in America, subject to discrimination and prejudice, George preached and lived tolerance and the healing of racial hatred.

A crisis in American history was averted in April 1968 after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn. The churches, temples and synagogues of America joined as one church in a national examination of conscience.

In San Luis Obispo, this spirit was manifested in the creation of the Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship program, which would make funds available for economically disadvantaged students to continue their education after high school.

The scholarship was funded by a chicken barbecue prepared by members of Springfield Baptist Church and St. Luke Missionary Baptist Church.

George served as the first secretary for the board that organized the event and distributed the scholarships.

A single scholarship was given the first year. In 2009, 13 scholarships were funded. What began as an act of healing racial injustice has become a San Luis Obispo tradition.

On Super Bowl Sunday next week, you can share the Rev. George Aki and Dr. King’s “Dream” and treat yourself and your family to some wonderful food and a rich slice of San Luis Obispo’s history.

The annual Martin Luther King Scholarship Barbecue will be held at the San Luis Obispo Elks Lodge on Sunday.

It’s worth coming early to see if there is any sweet potato pie. This isn’t a day for Dr. Atkins — it’s to celebrate a dream of what America should be about.

Takeouts are available and make a perfect Super Bowl Sunday meal.

Share the dream

The annual Martin Luther King Scholarship barbecue is set for noon to 4 p.m. Feb. 7 at the Elks Lodge, 222 Elks Lane, in San Luis Obispo.

For a $10 donation, the meal includes a home-style chicken dinner with potato salad and beans. Coffee, tea and punch are included, and homemade desserts are available.