They came hours before the coffin arrived, on a crisp, sun-dappled day unlike any this rain-soaked capital has seen in weeks, to pay their respects to the gentle woman with the bold spirit.

Most of the thousands of people waiting patiently in line at the U.S. Capitol to view the coffin of Rosa Parks yesterday had never met her, never seen her, never heard her speak. Yet her actions and legacy so resonated in their lives that they had come to know her, as if she had guided them all.

They came because she was so much like them, neither a general nor a president. And yet they came because she was so unlike them: a seamstress with the courage to challenge an unjust system when so many were afraid to, whose only weapon was a single word: "No."

The crowd was young and old, rich and poor, black and white, Republican and Democrat. They traveled from as far as Chicago and as near as College Park. Some came alone, preferring to remember in solitude. Others brought their children so they would understand the sacrifices she made on their behalf.

They brought lawn chairs, water bottles, mattresses and sandwiches. They wore expensive suits and tight jeans, African robes and clerical collars. The cross-country team from the District's Payne Elementary and Eliot Junior High schools wore matching dark blue tracksuits. Some sang soft gospel songs. Others chatted with strangers, making new friends, and in their own ways carried on Parks's legacy.

"I had to make sure that I paid homage to a great lady who was a mother to me," said Paula Matavane, 56, a college professor from Capitol Heights who brought along her daughter Mashadi, 20.

"She birthed a new spirit and a new hope in my life."

"Sojo, the line is moving. Sojo!"

Chandra Travis, 45, called to her daughter from the rope line at twilight yesterday at the west lawn of the Capitol. But the 8-year-old Sojourner, whose chin-length dreadlocks are a miniature of her mother's, was too busy picking up acorns to listen.

They'd taken the train from New York after church and would head right back to Union Station after they'd paid their respects. Travis, who lives in Harlem and runs educational workshops, said she was her daughter's age when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. died.

"There's very few legacy makers," she said. "I felt it was important to get this last glimpse."

Patricia Gassaway, 46, and her niece, Shante, waited for the No. 80 bus yesterday afternoon on North Capitol Street. Shante, a shy 12-year-old, draped herself over a bright yellow newspaper box and rolled her eyes as her aunt gave her a history lesson on Parks.

"She did something for us so we wouldn't have to sit on the back of the bus," Gassaway said. "If we choose to sit in the front, that's fine."

When the bus arrived, Gassaway and Shante headed to the back, but not the very back. The front was labeled "priority seating" for senior citizens and the disabled.

Behind the Gassaways, sitting in the second row from the back, was Tyrone Venable, a former history teacher who manages an immigration law firm in Tysons Corner.

"I'm going to see her body tonight," he said.

He recalled how he always included Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott in the curriculum for fifth- and sixth-graders. "From slavery to the Martin Luther King marches to the present history, I was trying to get them to understand," he said.

Elnora Anderson, 80, who sat in the middle of the bus, grew up in a family of 12 children in Tappahannock, Va. As farmers, "we had a buggy and a wagon," she said. "But the buggy couldn't make it to Richmond. . . . Boy, you got on that bus."

And that's when she encountered racism, she said.

"I didn't have the nerve to move," said the great-great-grandmother. "You had to sit back or get up and stand. It was cruel, you know."

Today, she's grateful for people like Parks who have made her older years on the bus a much more comfortable ride. "That shows that sometimes you have to stand up for your rights. We ride the bus. I sit in the back. I sit here. I sit everywhere. Oh, I'm just riding, honey," she said.

Two white people stood at the head of the line to see Rosa Parks. The first, Annie Smith, of Baltimore, didn't want to say anything; the second, Jerry Long, of Arlington, couldn't say enough.

Long, 60, was 10 years old, his father serving at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala., when Parks had her rendezvous with history. Soon after, he was impressed by the determination of blacks walking to work, boycotting the bus company that had denied her a seat.

"She's always been a hero to me," Long said. "Rosa Parks was an example that we can all revere and remember. She made it clear that one person could make a difference."

Larry Jackson and Sherrell Womack had just gotten into the ever-growing line near First Street NW when they spotted a frail woman trying to cross the lawn.

Unsteady on her feet ever since a stroke nine years ago, Lorella Bledsoe, 65, had walked eight long blocks from the senior citizens' apartment building where she lives in Chinatown. Her cane helped some on the asphalt, she said, but it was slipping on the grass.

"We saw her and said, 'This lady needs help,' " said Jackson, 47.

When the cousins reached Bledsoe, they stood on either side of her, assuring her they would not let her fall. Others in line waved them ahead a bit. A police officer found them a metal folding chair, and Jackson opened it each time the line paused so Bledsoe could sit down and rest.

She was determined to make it to the Rotunda -- after all, she'd marched from Selma to Montgomery back in the day.

Jackson and Womack said they'd stay right by her side and bring her home afterward, too.

Linda Wellmon, a FedEx customer service agent, and her daughter Jannine Saunders, a sixth-grader at Amidon Elementary School, were all set for a night of takeout from the Grand China carryout near the intersection of South Capitol and M streets SW last night. With empty stomachs, the two had a promising night ahead: They ordered dumplings, shrimp fried rice, and egg fu yung.

But when a man wandered through the restaurant at about 6 p.m. and informed everyone that Rosa Parks's coffin would pass right outside in a motorcade, Wellmon and Saunders decided dinner could wait.

After stowing the food inside their car, they took their place with about 10 other people on an overpass on M Street looking out on South Capitol. The night was cold, but not enough to make anyone shiver. Helicopters buzzed overhead, while the glow of convenience stores and a Domino's Pizza illuminated the streets.

It was not the ambience of the Capitol Rotunda, but the chance to see Parks pass by was no less solemn for Wellmon, who is Hispanic, and her daughter, who is Hispanic and black.

You think about what it would be like if she hadn't done what she did. People nowadays take so much for granted," said Wellmon, 56. "I'll probably say a little prayer when she passes."

Minutes passed by, and the two kept wondering aloud whether she'd ever come.

"It's now 6:40 . . ." Wellmon said, raising her wrist up high to look at her watch.

Finally, a police cruiser could be seen blocking off the traffic, and suddenly, the normally busy thoroughfare was empty. Straightening their backs and staring straight out, they saw the flashing blue and red lights of the motorcade coming their way.

"I've never seen a highway this clear," said Jannine, 11.

As it passed, Wellmon made the sign of the cross across her chest and clutched her daughter tightly.

"Well, you've seen a little piece of history," she said. "Now, home to my cold food."

At 7:20 p.m., as the procession drove solemnly down First Street, Rana Silver clapped as hard as she could. Tears trickled down her cheeks. Her fiance, Chris Meehan, put his hand on her back.

His cheeks were wet, too.

"It just means a lot to us," said Silver, 28, the daughter of a white Jewish father and a dark-skinned Jamaican mother. "I'm interracial. We're an interracial couple. And without the courage of this individual woman, we wouldn't be standing here engaged."

Dan Norman flew yesterday from Chicago to pay his respects to "a lady who changed his life."

He was 9 when Parks hopped on her bus. Like so many of his peers, he watched his parents walk to the back of buses and buy food at restaurants from the back door. Once, he said, he watched in horror as a white police officer nearly beat his father to death.

"In the black community, there's always talk about what we should do," said Norman, 58, a real estate investor and father of four adult children. "She actually had the courage to do it. It's still clear in my head."

Her act of defiance, he said, gave him courage when he worked for a computer company. He managed to break the color barrier and become one of the firm's first black executives.

"I tried to do what she did," Norman said. "She helped me to understand to stand up for what is right, even if that is not the politically correct thing to do. Rosa Parks is my hero," he said.

Monifa and Lyonel LaGrone brought their two sons, Jaylin, 4, and Tre, 4 months old, because they wanted them to witness a piece of history. At their home in New Jersey, they have started building a library about the civil rights movement to teach their sons. In three years, Lyonel said he plans to have Jaylin read about Parks.

"We would have come to this even if it was in Columbus, Ohio," said Lyonel LaGrone, who works as a fair housing specialist in Pennsylvania. "We would have gone wherever she was."

As Jaylin sucked a large lollipop and played on the steps of the Capitol, Lyonel picked up Tre and started playfully planting the legacy of Parks in the next generation.

"Say, 'I am going to be a civil rights activist," Lyonel Lagrone instructed his baby son, as his wife smiled in agreement. "Say, 'My father is going to tell me all about Rosa Parks when I grow up.' "

The Rev. Arvol "A.D." Robinson of New York waits to see the coffin at the Capitol Rotunda. "I came to see Rosa Parks in death because I never saw her in life," he said. Thousands came to see Rosa Parks's coffin in the Capitol Rotunda and to honor the woman whose legacy has resonated in their lives today.Moyesta Crumbie, 60, of Bethesda, brought her granddaughter, Dominique Patrick, 8, to pay respects to Parks at the Capitol Rotunda. "I came mostly for my granddaughter," Crumbie said.