After Harold Washington died,black leaders in Chicago almost immediately began the process of deification. Buttons started to appear, reading: “Hi God, How’s Harold?”

The way I saw it, to make a god out of Harold Washington was sacrilegious. Then this ridiculous poster came out. It shows the Chicago skyline with Jesus on one side and Washington on the other, on the same level with ]esus. Jesus looks sad, but Harold is beaming down upon the city. The title of the poster is: “Worry Ye Not.”

It was all a bit much, thought David Nelson, graduate student at the Art Institute of Chicago. Being an artist with a sense of the absurd. Nelson was able to act on his iconoclastic impulse. When the Art Institute held its annual juried competition of student artwork. Nelson’s paintings included a depiction of Harold Washington in women’s underwear (which he was rumored to be wearing when he was taken to the hospital). The title was “Mirth and Girth.”

Inasmuch as the exhibition was not open to the public during the jurying period, after which the paintings would be removed. Nelson never expected a citywide ruckus. But no sooner had he begun to hang his paintings than a black school secretary approached him, demanding: “Who gave you the right to hang this painting?” Nelson made a perfunctory reply, while continuing to hang his paintings. The secretary hurried off.

The private graduate student exhibit was about to be transformed into a nationally televised event. Within hours, nine black aldermen charged onto the scene, accompanied by three policemen, two detectives, and an unspecified number of newspaper reporters and television crews. Ignoring protests from students, faculty, and school security guards, several aldermen forcibly removed the Washington painting from the wall and started to take it out of the building until they were stopped by school guards, who persuaded the politicians to take the painting to the school president’s office.

During the two-hour meeting in President Jones’ office the aldermen raised the threat of “serious disturbances and demonstrations” if the painting were to remain at the school. They first sought to destroy the painting, then urged the police to impound it as a threat to public order. Finally, the aldermen, with a police escort, carried the painting away through a gauntlet of protesting students and faculty.

The next day, Marshall Field V, president of the Art Institute’s board of trustees, lawyers, and school representatives met at city hall with Acting Mayor Eugene Sawyer and 11 of the aldermen. The board capitulated and placed full page ads (at the Art Institute’s expense) in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, and in the (black) Chicago Defender, apologizing for “the distress and concern that the painting caused the community.” Field swallowed an added affront by agreeing with the aldermen’s demands that the school should hire more black administrators and enroll more black students. In a candid statement, Jones acknowledged: “When the aldermen say there will be marches on the Institute and bombings, I absolutely believe them. We didn’t come out of it terribly well . . . It was frightening. I haven’t been in anything like this before. When you introduce that racial element it takes a much meaner and ferocious tone.”

Predictably, the mob was not appeased. On May 13, two days after the secretary had sounded the alarm, “One Hundred Pastors for Peace and Tranquility in Our City” assembled at Operation PUSH headquarters. The Rev. Willie Barrow, executive director of PUSH, vowed to impose unspecified “sanctions” against the Art Institute unless it adopted a review policy to prevent offensive portraits from being exhibited by its students or contributing artists. Her statement also demanded a written apology to the family of Mayor Harold Washington and to members of the city council.

“We will not tolerate that picture hanging on the wall, Constitution or no Constitution,” declared Alderman Allan Streeter, a leader of the raid on the art school. Asked on John Callaway’s public television show, Chicago Tonight, “What was your idea of due process?” Streeter replied, “Take it [the painting] down. The law of decency transcends the First Amendment.” He then rose to more rarified heights: “We, as a race of people, should not allow others to determine who our leaders will be, who we’re going to discipline, who we’re going to remove.” At this. Northwestern University Professor Daniel Polsby burst out: “For heaven’s sake, alderman, think about what you’re saying! It shouldn’t be necessary for a white man to talk to a black man about mob rule. That’s not American.”

Other Chicago liberals were equally upset. Harvey Grossman, legal adviser for the American Civil Liberties Union, announced that a civil suit for damages would be filed against the Chicago Police Department for violating Nelson’s freedom of speech and for illegal search and seizure. (Six weeks later, the ACLU narrowed its focus to three of the leading aldermanic invaders and unnamed police officers; it sued for $100,000.)

Prominent Art Institute fundraisers had their hackles raised. Bob Bergman: “I had visions of Nazi storm troopers, the way the aldermen marched into the school.” Camille Oliver Hoffman: “This is fascist. We are going to drive all our artists to New York—or Europe.” Claudia Luebbers: “They can come into your office if they don’t like the poster on your wall.”

Some white aldermen seemed to agree. “Harold Washington has become so sacrosanct,” said Richard Mell (33rd Ward, northwest Chicago). “Those aldermen were not authorized to go down there and seize the painting,” but “they were playing to their black constituents.” Kathy Osterman (48th Ward, north side of Chicago) went further: “It was outrageous. They suspended the rules and stopped important Council business. . . . They made a mockery of the affair.”

Most responsible black leaders were reluctant to discuss the matter. John H. Johnson, publisher of Jet and Ebony magazines, refused to comment on the Washington painting affair, although he is known to be a generous contributor to the Art Institute. Alderman Anna Langford, who previously had stood up against claimants to Mayor Washington’s presumed legacy, also refused comment. Leroy Thomas, editor of the Chicago Defender, had this to say: “I don’t feel that I can make an objective comment. I naturally live by freedom of the press, but I don’t believe in abusing it. I’m not saying that the student [David Nelson] intended to create all that publicity, but that’s what happened.”

When asked to comment on Nelson’s view that Washington is being deified, Thomas was more direct, replying sharply, “That’s his view.” But not only his: in fijneral orations for Harold Washington, Jesse Jackson likened him to Jesus, as did Ernest Byfield, Washington’s chief of staff: subsequently, Alderman Streeter described his former leader as “godlike.”

And the artist? “Of course I knew that the painting was likely to provoke some anger and controversy. . . . But I had no idea it would go beyond the private bounds of the school. When I saw all that stuff happen—the media, the aldermen, the police, the commotion, the bomb threats—I have to admit my stomach was turning over.”

Not long before the Nelson episode, another Chicago area art exhibit had featured obscene portrayals of the Holy Family. As offensive as the paintings were to the Christian majority in the city, nothing could be done about them. But there are some religions you can’t make fun of, as David Nelson learned, the hard way.