Spokane community and civil right activist Sandy Williams (’83 Psych.) died in a Puget Sound floatplane crash in early September.

The founder of a community center in East Central Spokane and a newspaper aimed at sharing stories and perspectives of—and advocating for—Spokane’s Black community was on her way home from a vacation in the San Juan Islands.

She was one of ten people aboard the floatplane, which departed Friday Harbor for Renton and went down in Mutiny Bay off of south Whidbey Island, about halfway into the flight. There were no survivors.

Williams started The Black Lens in 2015 with her savings, serving as editor and publisher. In 2020, she told WSU News, “I feel like I have this responsibility to represent the Black voice in the community. The Black Lens is more than a newspaper; it’s a tool for advocacy.”

Williams raised money, wrote articles, and did whatever else needed to get done in order to open and grow The Black Lens and the newly opened community center.

In 2018, she was honored with the YWCA Woman of Achievement Carl Maxey Racial and Social Justice Award, named for Spokane’s first prominent Black attorney and an influential civil rights leader. That year, she raised $375,000 to buy an old auto shop and lot for the future community center, which she named for Maxey.

The Carl Maxey Center opened this year to promote economic development, education, and cultural enrichment in Spokane’s Black community, along with racial equity and justice.

In 2019, Williams was named one of the Spokesman-Review’s Inland Northwest Women of the Year.

At WSU, Williams played intramural volleyball and flag football. She later earned a master’s degree in film and television production from the film school at University of Southern California. In 2006, she moved back to the Spokane area, where she had grown up.

In summer 2022, she was a featured speaker at WSU’s Study of the US Institutes for Student Leaders from Europe: Journalism and Media, sponsored by the US Department of State. The 14 student journalists, largely from the Balkans, said meeting Williams was a highlight of the program. “She was a huge inspiration for all of us, an example of how hard we need to work,” said Gabriela Leskova, a SUSI participant and young journalist from North Macedonia.

While Williams wrote most of the stories in The Black Lens, she didn’t identify as a journalist.

“Journalists have a particular role to play, which is neutral,” she told WSU News in 2020. “The Black Lens is certainly not neutral. It’s never been neutral. It never was intended to be neutral. Even from the title, you can tell it’s written from a certain perspective. I try my best to be fair and balanced, but the intention is to give an alternative view. It’s my job to speak for the Black community and advocate for the Black community and cover things for the Black community. It can be a challenging role to play. There have been times when I’m speaking at an event that I’m supposed to be covering.”

But, she said, “As long as you’re honest about what you’re doing, it’s OK.”


Learn more

Read more about Williams and her work in the March 5, 2020, issue of The Daily Evergreen.

Power of words (Williams and The Black Lens, Spring 2019 issue, Washington State Magazine)