I’m not sure there could be a statue depicting exactly how tall Miss Nina Miglionico stood in Birmingham. If you wanted to go by physical stature alone, you wouldn’t need much in the way of raw materials, for the diminutive daughter of Italian immigrants stood barely 5-feet-nothing. However, if you’re talking about a statue commensurate with the long shadow she cast over the Magic City during her 73-year career as a lawyer, a political progressive and the first city councilwoman, well, there might not be enough iron ore in Red Mountain for a sculpture that size.
Sam Rumore would be glad to split the difference. Rumore, who practiced law with Miss Nina (everybody called her that because “Miglionico” was such a mouthful) for 35 years, along with other of her fans in the city and around the world, has been pushing for a monument in her honor in Linn Park, near the city hall in which she wielded considerable influence for 23 years. Though the city council has failed to act on several plans to honor Miss Nina since her death in 2009, Mayor William Bell, who served with her on the council, has gotten behind the idea of a Linn Park statue as a fitting tribute. The city has kicked in $50,000 toward the work,
Fifty years ago this week, Miss Nina was the recipient of a different kind of attention: a case of dynamite delivered to her doorstep.
Born in 1913, the young Miglionico showed early a flair for music and scholarship. She graduated from Woodlawn aged 16, then was valedictorian of her senior class at Howard College. In 1932, she enrolled in the University of Alabama Law School, at a time when there were perhaps 25 women practicing law in the state of Alabama. Then more than now, the legal profession here was a club for good ol’ boys, and when Miss Nina was awarded her license to practice, it was necessary to scratch out the masculine pronouns on the pre-printed certificate and write in the feminine pronouns.
She caught the usual kinds of cases to pay the rent, but she found time to become an advocate for ending child labor, changing the parole system and improving the state of women’s rights. She became active in many professional women’s associations and honed her political skills. Her reputation as an honest and competent lawyer earned respect from the state Democratic Party, and Miglionico narrowly missed election to the legislature in 1958.
Five years later, Birmingham politics were in turmoil. Marches in the streets had changed the game for segregationists, and the city government changed as well, moving from a three-man commission to a mayor-council system in hopes of improving its civic image. In the March 1963 municipal election, Miss Nina was one of 76 candidates running at-large. After the primary and subsequent run-off, she became the first woman elected to the Birmingham City Council.
Bull Connor and the other commissioners wouldn’t leave City Hall without a fight. After a brief time in which the city had two competing governments, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled in favor of the new mayor, Albert Boutwell, and the nine-person council. The new crew acted swiftly to curtail the Jim Crow ordinances established by the old commission, voting unanimously to rescind them on July 23. Less than two months later, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was bombed.
A racial moderate, Miss Nina regularly received hate mail from bigots, but in the spring of 1965, they went too far.
On Thursday morning, April 1, a week after the conclusion of the Selma-to-Montgomery march and the murder of Viola Liuzzo in Lowndes County, a bomb went off at T.L. Crowell’s house at 1312 4th Avenue North around 4 a.m., leaving a crater three feet deep and ten feet across in the driveway, but no loss of life.
A couple of hours later, at 931 Essex Road, Joe Miglionico stepped out on the front porch to get the daily Post-Herald. He and his wife Mary had moved in with their daughter in Forest Park, and on this morning, instead of the paper, he saw a large green box. According to Rumore’s account in the Spring 2014 issue of Alabama Heritage, Joe heard ticking. He opened a corner of the box, saw a clock and realized it was a bomb.
After a moment’s hesitation, the 80-year-old man reached inside, pulled out the timer — an alarm clock wired to a battery and a blasting cap — and threw it into the yard. He then went inside, awoke his daughter and told her what had transpired. It was the first time a public official in Birmingham had been targeted for death by racial terrorists.
A little later that morning, another live bomb was found in shrubbery alongside Mayor Albert Boutwell’s home on Clairmont Avenue, but a Birmingham police captain defused that one. The three bombs, each containing 50 to 60 sticks of dynamite, were evidently the work of the same individual or individuals. Whether or not “Dynamite Bob” Chambliss, architect of the Sixteenth Street explosion, was one of them may never be known. The crime remains unsolved.
When Governor George Wallace interrupted a trip to Washington to visit the crime scenes in Birmingham, he found Joe and Mary at home on Essex Road, but Miss Nina was not there. She had gone back to work at City Hall.
That was the kind of public servant Nina Miglionico was; dedicated to duty, undeterred by hatred. A statue of her in Linn Park would be a good reminder of the high standards to which our present public servants should aspire. Someone needs to keep an eye on City Hall. I nominate Miss Nina.
You can make a tax-deductible contribution to the Nina Miglionico Statue Project through the Birmingham Bar Foundation at 2021 2nd Avenue North, Birmingham AL 35203.