The Cardozo High School Male Chorus had just finished its a cappella rendition of "Run, Run, Run - There's No Hiding Place," when the restless audience of 1,200 students jumped to their feet - cheering, whistling and applauding.
Some of the applause was directed to the Male Chorus, but mostly the audience was cheering author Alex Haley, who was being helped on to the opposite end of the auditorium stage by D.C. public school security officers.
It was a special awards day assembly instituted by D., School Supt. Vincent Reed to, in his words, "recognize those students who have distinguished themselves academically."
Yesterday, 48 students in the 1,800-member of Cardozo student body who earned As and Bs during the first semester and four students who earned all As walked across the stage to receive personal letters of recognition from the superintendent of schools.
Reed said that Haley, who wrote the best-selling book, "Roots," was added to the program Sunday as a special guest speaker, after Haley agreed to visit Cardozo while in the area for another speaking engagement.
"It is appropriate for us to have with us today, a man who is nationally known and has distinguished himself as a scholar," Reed said in his introduction of Haley. "He is a scholar, a researcher, a journalist and a man who is interested in young people.
When Haley was introduced, the audience, which had been buzzing throughout Reed's comments, once again burst into a mixture of shrieking screams, cheers and thunderous applause. Then the audience settled down and Haley spoke.
As I was up here helping to hand out these letters, it occured to me that I really shouldn't be up here," he said. "I earned C's and D's when I was in high school and I've had to work hard all of my life to overcome that."
For the Cardozo audience, Haley diverged from his usual speech, which details how he went researching and writing his book about this African ancestors. Instead, Haley spoke on "the pursuit of excellent."
"Whenever I come to a city, I like to go out into the community and talk with people who are about 40. I ask them what would they do if they could live their lives over," Haley said. "Thy all say they would try to do better in school so they could achieve something in life."
"I believe that we as black people must become excited about the pursuit of excellence," Haley told his young audience who sat in silence. "You must decide that you are going to be the best there is."
Haley told the students that he is proud, for himself and blacks as a whole, that his book, "Roots," is "squarely atop the best seller list in America and we're going to stay there a while longer."
In addition, Haley presented several copies of his long-playing record, "Alex Haley Tells the Story of Roots," to the Cardozo library and told the audience that this summer 12 more hours of "Roots" will be filmed. News of the new film brought another prolonged applause.
When the assembly was dismissed, several hundreds students rushed toward Haley to speak to him or to get his autograph. Security guards, in turn, were pushing through the crowd to make way for Haley to exit to a waiting limousine.
"I just want to look at him," shouted one girl, who pressed her face against the rear window to take a look. Dozens of other excited students also surrrounded the car.
Celeste Johnson, an 11th-grader who received a letter of academic achievement, shouted to Haley in the car that she was among the students who got As and Bs and she asked if he would give her his autograph. Haley cautiously rolled down the window, signed, and the car speed away.