Almost 150 people crowd around a statue in Linn Park last Friday, waiting to dedicate a statue honoring Nina Miglionico, the first woman to serve on the Birmingham City Council. Mayor William Bell and Birmingham City Council members past and present mingle with members of the Miglionico family and friends.
“Almighty God, we come together today to give you thanks for those you have raised up,” says Father Kevin Bazzel, giving the invocation. “Today we give you thanks especially for the gift of Miss Nina Miglionico who in 1963 you called to serve the people of the city of Birmingham in a time of tumult but also a time of transformation.”
Nina Miglionico, or Miss Nina as she was known to her friends, was part of Birmingham’s City Council for 22 years. She was a progressive politician who favored equality for women and African Americans. This fall marks the 30th anniversary of her retirement from government, and she’s being recognized not only by this statue but also in biographical documentary film,Stand Up, Speak Out: The Nina Miglionico Story.
The film was produced and directed, somewhat surprisingly, by local attorney Jenna Bedsole. In 2011, the Leadership Forum of the Alabama State Bar asked her to make a short video about one of the inductees into the Alabama Lawyers’ Hall of Fame. Bedsole had never made a film before, but was drawn to the only woman in that group: Nina Miglionico.
“As I started doing research, I realized I couldn’t do it in just 3 minutes. I couldn’t just do a short video about Nina,” recalls Bedsole. “Her accomplishments were too great and she was such a central figure in Birmingham and local politics I couldn’t just limit it to a short film. So it became a full-length feature film.”
Stand Up, Speak Out: The Nina Miglionico Story is making the rounds at film festivals. It highlights the achievements of this daughter of Italian immigrants who graduated from high school at age 16, college at 19 and Alabama Law School at age 22.
A Passion For Women’s Rights
Despite her impressive academic accomplishments, it was still 1936. Birmingham attorney Sam Rumore says Miglionico received only one job offer from a Birmingham law firm.
“She was offered a job as a secretary if she could type and take shorthand,” laughs Rumore. “She certainly didn’t want to do that. So she opened her own law practice.”
Rumore clerked for Miglionico as a law student and eventually became her law partner. Rumore says Miss Nina’s involvement with professional women’s groups gave her insight into the legal problems of women at the time.
“Women couldn’t serve on juries. Women were treated differently in probate court. She went around speaking about the different ways women were treated,” says Rumore. “In fact, for 30 years she worked to change the law where women could not serve on juries. She started being an activist, and I guess it was just by using her legal skills. The next natural thing was to become a politician.”
Fighting Against Segregation in Birmingham
In March of 1963, Birmingham elected Mayor Albert Boutwell and nine new council members to replace Bull Connor and other city commissioners who had cast Birmingham as the capital of racial hatred. Nina Miglionico was one of the nine council members. According to Rumore, they wasted no time making changes.
“In one fell swoop they did away with every segregation ordinance that the city had on its books for so many years,” Rumore says.
Miglionico’s efforts to end segregation made her a target of the Ku Klux Klan. Crosses were burned in her yard, and in 1965 a bomb was left on the porch of the home she shared with her parents. Her father defused the device.
Miglionico spoke to reporters that same day. “I think that this confirms our feeling that this type of thing is un-American and that innocent people must be allowed to have peace in their home,” she said. “And I am sure that every member of the city government feels that we are going to do what needs to be done to move this city forward.”
“There’s also an amazing quiet courage that she had,” says Scotty Colson, who worked with Miglionico. “She was driven by a sense that everyone ought to be treated fairly. When you look at all of her history, coming up with bomb planted on her front porch, the vile things said about her over the years by the right wing and the segregationists. That never bothered her.”
“She truly embodied the idea of ‘it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog,'” Colson says. “She had more fight in her than anybody that small should have ever been able to pack into it.”
After almost 23 years on the City Council Nina Miglionico retired in 1985. She continued to practice law almost until the day she died in 2009 at age 95. Her 73 years at the bar make her the longest-practicing female attorney in Alabama history.