Wednesday, November 28, 2001

When the NAACP, Urban League and black politicians talk about civil rights, they talk mostly about how many blacks are in college, the racial composition of schools and neighborhoods or the number of blacks employed in what positions.

The Institute for Justice has taken up the challenge of economic liberty as one of the most important components of civil rights, not only for blacks but all Americans. Recently, the organization held its 10th anniversary celebration to discuss those challenges.

California law used to require that African hair braiders spend 1,600 hours in classes, costing at least $5,000, at state-approved cosmetology schools and pass a licensing examination in order to legally practice their craft. California’s cosmetology schools teach hair-straightening and chemical use but absolutely nothing about braiding.

The law’s design is to restrict entry to the cosmetology industry so that incumbent practitioners can charge higher prices. Institute for Justice lawyers sued and won. The federal court held in Cornwell vs. California Board of Barbering and Cosmetology that the licensing law was arbitrary and unconstitutional. This was an important victory for economic liberty the right to earn an honest living free from excessive government regulation. It opens the way for African hair braiders across our country to practice their craft legally.

The Rev. Nathaniel Craigmiles, pastor of Marble Top Missionary Baptist Church in Chattanooga, Tenn. discovered after his mother-in-law’s funeral that the casket he paid $3,200 for in Tennessee sold for $800 in a New York City showroom. He opened a shop and started selling caskets to his church members 30 percent to 50 percent cheaper than funeral home prices.

That made Mr. Craigmiles a criminal. Tennessee law requires a funeral director’s license in order to sell caskets. The Institute for Justice sued. In August 2000, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee held in Craigmiles vs. Giles that “there is no reason to require someone who sells what is essentially a box (a casket) to undergo the time and expense of training and testing that has nothing to do with the state’s asserted goals of consumer protection and health and safety.”

Tennessee’s funeral director lobby is powerful and seeks to maintain its monopoly. It has forced the state’s attorney to appeal the decision in the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. In the meanwhile, thugs regularly smash Mr. Craigmiles’ shop windows. His physical safety has been threatened, and funeral thugs have warned him that regardless of how the court rules he will not sell caskets in Tennessee.

The Institute for Justice has been victorious in getting rid of harsh taxicab ownership restrictions in Denver and Cincinnati. It represents New York’s van driver/owners who provide transportation to poor clients poorly served by taxis and buses, and are fighting vicious attempts by New York’s public transportation authority and its unions to run them out of business.

The Institute for Justice also protects people against state eminent domain abuses, such as when Donald Trump got New Jersey to condemn Vera Coking’s house, which stood in the way of his building a parking garage in Atlantic City. Mr. Trump lost, and Mrs. Coking has her house thanks to the Institute for Justice. Mississippi is seeking to take the property of Lonzo Archie so that Nissan Motors can build a plant, and the Institute for Justice is representing the Archies against the state.

Through a long, hard and bitterly fought struggle, black Americans have constitutional guarantees that have remained elusive for so long. The unfinished business for all Americans, including black Americans, is the guarantee of economic liberty the right to earn a living in any lawful occupation. I wonder whether the civil rights establishment agrees?

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