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At the forefront of the civil rights movement

In 1965, when Ashland resident Natalie Tyler was organizing a protest march against racial segregation in Cincinnati — where she ran a Head Start program — she would welcome sharecroppers and other activists to stay at her home. One day, the activist she provided a bed for was Martin Luther King Jr.

King, newly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, stayed in Tyler's house with his wife, Coretta, for two days, says Tyler, now a psychologist.

"It was amazing. I remember coming down to breakfast one of the mornings and I found King and Coretta holding hands and praying together. He set the breakfast table. They always said please and thank you to each other and everyone else."

One evening, King spent some time enjoying her library, says Tyler, "and he came out and said, 'Thank you for the books you read.' Just to be around him was such a wonderful experience. They lived what they taught."

Tyler was no stranger to the magnetic presence of King. Schooled in peace and nonviolence by her Unitarian Church in Cincinnati and a veteran of lunch-counter integration suits, she went to the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and heard King's legendary "I Have a Dream" speech to 200,000 protesters.

"It was a beautiful, cloudless day, and they were trying to get jobs other than being porters and garbagemen, and to get in schools. They wanted voting rights, and they got them (the 1965 Voting Rights Act). I felt so connected. I'd never heard anything like it before. It had such an impact on me."

In 1965, Tyler joined the Selma-to-Montgomery, Ala., march for voting rights, where King delivered his noted "How Long, Not Long" speech.

Her eyes damp, Tyler reads the line, "The end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience. ... I know you are asking today, How long will it take? I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long."

One day on the weeklong march, Tyler was about to get into a car driven by a white woman that was carrying black men, something that was done at risk of life in segregated Alabama. In the shuffle, Tyler says, she got in another car. Hours later, the woman, Viola Liuzzo, was shot and killed by four Ku Klux Klan members.

At the airport, leaving Alabama, Tyler and other white marchers pointedly tried to integrate the restaurant, entering with black people, but were told it was closed.

"We were very hungry and thirsty, but we told them that we understand your need to keep your job and we're not angry with you. A white waitress got us water and a bag of cookies and said, 'I have learned so much from you folks and have changed my thinking on this.'

"From that moment on I vowed I would never speak against any group of people."

In Cincinnati, Tyler and other civil rights volunteers worked with Congress on Racial Equality and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to integrate restaurants and public bathrooms. Using American Civil Liberties Union lawyers, they took violators to court and, she says, "We always won."

The movement hit its painful nadir with the assassination of King in 1968 — a night in which, against the urging of friends, including CORE president Jimmy Vinegar, Tyler went out and joined angry black mourners in Cincinnati.

"Jimmy said, 'Don't go because you'll be the only white person and you might get killed.' I said no, I'm going, so he came over and picked me up. Everyone knew him, and he stood next to me. A black woman came up to me and said, 'You look white, but you're good; you have a black soul.' It was such a compliment to me."

Tyler and her husband, John Tyler, a psychotherapist, teach "Conscious Relationships" at Osher Life-Long Learning at Southern Oregon University.

She will deliver a sermon at 10:30 a.m. today at Ashland's Unitarian-Universalist Church, retelling her stories and sharing inspirations from the civil rights struggle. He will sing a song that says, "Lincoln stood so Rosa could sit; Martin marched so Barack could run — and now all our children can fly."

Natalie Tyler speaks about her experiences through the civil rights movement Friday at Mountain Meadows Retirement Community in Ashland. - Julia Moore