December 18, 1995 12:00 PM

TO THE 1,500 HIGH SCHOOLERS IN the auditorium at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in Aurora, Ill., last month, the figure onstage seemed too frail and unassuming to be the civil rights firebrand they’d read about in history books. But once Rosa Parks, 82, began to talk about her now-legendary act of defiance—refusing to surrender her seat to a white man on a Montgomery, Ala., bus in 1955—everybody listened up. “When the driver asked me if I was going to stand up, I said, ‘No,’ ” Parks said in a forceful voice. “I was willing to risk what would happen to me because I had endured that treatment so long.”

Forty years ago this month, that one-woman rebellion launched a 381-day boycott of the Montgomery bus system by black residents, led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a local minister, which forced the city to integrate its buses. That victory gave birth to the modern-day civil rights movement, to which Parks remains passionately committed. In October, Parks, who retired in 1988 after 23 years as an assistant to Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, addressed the Million Man March in Washington. And in the coming months, she will commemorate the boycott by addressing young people and holding educational workshops across the U.S.

“It takes more than one person to bring about peace—it takes all of us,” says Parks, who stresses to students the importance of racial harmony, staying in school and voting. But it’s her presence—as much as her message—that impresses. Says Yaw Agyemang, a senior at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy: “I was in awe—for me to meet someone who has done so much for our people, our generation, I really felt privileged.”

Parks’s courage sprang from years of frustration. Growing up in Pine Level, Ala., a rural town whose black residents were routinely terrorized by the Ku Klux Klan, she recalls her grandfather, a former slave, sitting with a rifle on their farmhouse porch. “He always said he would get the first [Klansman] that came in,” she remembers.

The family stayed clear of Klan rancor, but not of bigotry’s other indignities. Though Parks’s mother, Leona McCauley, a schoolteacher, made education a priority (Parks’s father, James, a carpenter, had left the family when she was 5), she and her brother Sylvester, who died in 1977, were barred from nearby Montgomery’s segregated public schools. Enrolling at a special school for blacks, Parks had to drop out at 16 to care for her dying grandmother. She soon married Raymond Parks, 29, a barber and longtime NAACP member. They settled in Montgomery, and Rosa, at 20, earned her high school diploma. Ten years later, she became the unpaid secretary of the local NAACP. “Everything was segregated then,” she says. “It was not very pleasant to always face that kind of treatment.”

She found the law requiring blacks to surrender their seats to whites on buses so repugnant that she often walked the mile to and from her job as a department store seamstress. Then one day, she boarded the Cleveland Avenue bus and, “tired of being pushed around,” stayed put when the driver, J.P. Blake, demanded she give up her seat. Arrested and released on bond, she made the local paper the next day. “I didn’t have any idea how the community would react,” says Parks. Four days later the boycott began, organized by black ministers and activists. Financially crippling the bus system, the boycotters eventually had their case heard in the Supreme Court, which, on Dec. 20, 1956, ruled segregated public transportation unconstitutional. “It was as if the entire black community of Montgomery was waiting for this moment,” recalls Parks’s friend, author and social historian Studs Terkel.

Now widowed—Raymond died of cancer in 1977—and living in a high-rise apartment in Detroit, where the couple moved in 1957, Parks, who never had children, is overwhelmed by the attention that still surrounds her. Last week, a gospel and pop album, A Tribute to Rosa Parks, hit music stores, and a play saluting her life is set to tour the country. Yet Parks, who is at work on a second autobiography, remains acutely aware that the battle she helped launch 40 years ago is far from over. “I don’t know how soon that day will come,” she says, “but it can’t be too soon for me.”

JANICE MIN

FANNIE WEINSTEIN in Detroit and ANA RHODES in Aurora

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