"Our leadership in Birmingham doesn't have a vision of what is possible," Nina Miglionico says.
Being a good lawyer, the lady affectionately known by more than one generation of Birminghamians as "Miss Nina" chooses a point of verbal emphasis carefully, then pauses to allow the listener a moment to absorb the full weight of its meaning. She is seated in a book-lined alcove off the main room of her Southside condominium, a space that somehow reflects both the range of her accomplishment and the depth of her modesty. At 92, she might be forgiven for resting on her considerable laurels, spending her days reflecting on a long career as a pioneering woman and dedicated public servant; that such a person is instead inclined to ponder the future of the city she calls home might just say as much, good and ill, about the bundle of perpetual promise that is Birmingham as about Miglionico's extraordinary devotion to her calling.
"I'm talking about civic and political leadership," Miglionico continues. "There's too much focus on doing the 'today' things instead of putting in the time and effort to get together on the 'tomorrow' things."
One of the first women admitted to the Alabama Bar Association, perhaps the very first to establish her own practice. First woman elected to the Birmingham City Council, coming to office as part of the first Council elected when the city's voters abolished the commission form of government in 1963. First, and to date only, woman to serve as president of the City Council. Recipient of the Margaret Brent award from the National Association of Women Lawyers, which she served as president in 1958-59. Impressive as it is, the list of superlatives that adorn Miglionico's curriculum vitae only begins to tell her story.
"What Miss Nina accomplished by going to law school when she did, her record as an attorney - those things are historic in themselves," says Jefferson County Commissioner Bettye Fine Collins. "But she got involved in improving race relations and reforming government in Birmingham at a time when it was dangerous to do that, and not just politically. As a member of the City Council, she was always about doing what was needed to move the community forward. Her contributions are beyond measure."
Collins served with Miglionico during the last four of the latter's 22 years on the City Council. She describes Miglionico as a "visionary" who, among other things, was an early advocate of revitalizing downtown Birmingham through residential development of the type that has only recently begun to come to real fruition. Miglionico was similarly lauded by the official biographer of another onetime city council colleague, Richard Arrington, Jr. Arrington, of course, went on to become Birmingham's first black mayor; in that position, he found Miglionico a sometime supporter, sometime opponent and, increasingly, a disaffected former ally in the city's white community.
Whatever the state of the relationship between Miglionico and Arrington, it didn't keep Arrington biographer Jimmie Lewis Franklin from writing of the former councilwoman in 1989 that she "had a keen mind, was intellectually tough, and usually dealt objectively with issues." As an elected leader, Lewis added, Miglionico "had a sense of the city, where she wanted it to go, and how it would get there." That characteristic remains constant in this, the 20th year since her retirement from the City Council in October 1985 - according to friends, it is only in past few years that she has ceased keeping daily hours at her law office, and she still maintains an active schedule of meetings and social appointments - and is demonstrated amply throughout the conversation at her home.
"We ought to be pulling together, but we're pulling apart," she declares. "There's no unity of spirit between the city and the suburbs. The suburbs not only couldn't care less about what happens in the city, they seem to actually want to hurt Birmingham. When Irondale takes a car dealership from Birmingham or Birmingham takes Wal-Mart from Irondale, that's just stealing from each other and calling it progress."
The essence of leadership, Miglionico says, is making long-range decisions that may be unpopular in the short term; likewise, that brand of leadership provides the sense of shared vision necessary to achieve the kind of civic consensus she sees as missing from greater Birmingham. By way of example, she notes that Birmingham already is years behind other communities in expanding its convention and event facilities, adding that if surveys of public sentiment had been conducted before the original Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center opened in 1971, "most people would have said they didn't support it. But it got done, and it has been good for Birmingham." While acknowledging the room for honest disagreement about the best uses of public funding in the present day, Miglionico tends to view the issue through the lens of simple efficiency in pursuit of progress.
"How much could we do for education if we consolidated our school systems in Jefferson County, and did away with 13 different superintendents and administrative staffs?" she asks rhetorically. "How much does it cost to pay all these mayors and city councils? It's just wasted money and resources. It's just what I've said, it's stealing from each other, growing separately instead of growing together. I hate to be pessimistic, but Birmingham is never going to be what it should be until we stop doing harm to ourselves."
The passion Miglionico continues to bring to "macro" issues like the future of Birmingham is matched by her lifelong interest in the "micro" issues that impact the quality of community life. An avid traveler, she recalls returning from jaunts to European cities full of ideas about beautifying Birmingham and making it more cosmopolitan; those ideas were not always greeted with enthusiasm, she notes, though characteristically neglecting to mention that more of them than not wound up being implemented.
"For the longest time, the health department wouldn't let us serve food on the sidewalks," Miglionico remembers. "I couldn't understand that, since they'd been doing it in Paris for a thousand years. And when some of the staff at the city said we couldn't plant trees in the medians of our streets, that they wouldn't grow, I wondered why they could grow in Naples and Rome, but not in Birmingham."
That kind of attention to the details of public service is what makes Miglionico a role model for both elected officials and citizens in general, say those who know her best. Combined with the sheer pleasure of her company, it also goes a long way toward explaining why former colleagues in the political realm continue to rely on her for friendship and advice.
"She has a unique perspective," says former city council president and county commissioner John Katopodis. Like Collins, he served on the council with Miglionico, and each makes a point of having lunch or dinner with "Miss Nina" as often as possible. Both Katopodis and Collins are emphatic in stating their feeling that Miglionico's contributions to Birmingham are underappreciated.
"Miss Nina is an unsung hero in this community," Katopodis says. "She is an important historic figure who has contributed greatly to progress on multiple fronts. I consider myself very lucky to have been a friend of hers."
"She's one of the smartest people we've ever elected to public office in this area," says Collins. "She's also one of the most unrecognized for her role in moving the community forward. It's a shame, really, how little acclaim has been afforded her."
True to her nature, Miglionico doesn't see it that way. Asked if she views herself as a pioneer, she gives an answer that suggests why she is held in such esteem - and why she hasn't received her historic due.
"I don't know what I consider myself," she says. "Isn't the more important thing the people who follow you? It's great to be first, to be 'one,' but it's the two and three and four that come after you that is the telling thing."
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