Birmingham attorney Jenna Bedsole didn’t intend to add “documentary filmmaker” to her already impressive resume. However, soon after Bedsole began researching the life of women’s and civil rights champion Nina Miglionico for a three-minute video tribute, she felt called to produce “Stand Up, Speak Out, ” a feature-length film highlighting Miglionico’s civic contributions.
Bedsole volunteered several years ago to put together a short video on Miglionico, a legend among those who knew her in the legal community. “I soon realized Nina’s story couldn’t be adequately told in three minutes. She was an unsung hero who had made a major impact in our state, and I felt more people needed to know about her life, ” says Bedsole, who leads the Labor & Employment Practice Group for Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz PC.
One of Alabama’s first female attorneys, Miglionico was listed as the longest-practicing female lawyer in the state when she died in 2009 at the age of 95.
“Miss Nina” — as she was often called by friends and admirers — was voted onto the Birmingham City Council in 1963 as the city transitioned from a commissioner-based government. She was the first woman elected to the council and served on it for 22 years.
During the early, turbulent years of her service on the council, during the Civil Rights Era, Miglionico received hate mail and death threats. She was the target of a failed bombing attempt in 1965, likely because of her civil rights advocacy, including the rewriting of segregation-era ordinances as a council member.
Miglionico pressed for women to be allowed to serve on juries in Alabama. Finally the pioneer saw her dream become a reality in 1975. “By the time women were finally allowed to serve on a jury, they already could be an attorney or even a judge, ” Bedsole says.
Another major issue on Miglionico’s radar was the poll tax. The tax not only kept low-income African-Americans and whites from exercising their right to vote, it also often hampered many women from voting when their working husbands could only afford to pay for one person in the family — themselves — to vote.
Because of her ongoing advocacy for women’s rights, Miglionico was appointed to the President’s Commission on the Status of Women and pressed for the passage of the Equal Pay Act of 1964.
“Stand Up, Speak Out” highlights Miglionico’s public life and touches upon several other women leaders who followed the inspiration she set and the path she paved for them, in the spirit of her famous comment: “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.”
Bedsole collaborated with longtime Birmingham-based filmmaker Ted Speaker on the project. Speaker, a composer, producer and editor, has worked on numerous feature films, short films, documentaries, commercials and corporate campaigns. “Ted and I were on the same page as far as the vision for the film. Without his experience and expertise, there is no way I could have completed the project, ” Bedsole says.
Bedsole took an active role in the creation of the film. She fit her research and other film work into an already busy schedule, including her work with Baker Donelson, motherhood and volunteering. “I am organized, ” she says. “That helps tremendously.”
As a group leader for her firm, Bedsole manages 84 lawyers across seven states in 15 offices. She also actively practices, counseling employers in employment-related matters and representing them in cases, including those involving discrimination. She conducts management and employee compliance training and drafts materials for companies concerning employment and labor laws. Bedsole also represents educational institutions and is a registered mediator.
Bedsole doesn’t find it ironic that she defends employers against discrimination suits, while Miglionico was a discrimination champion. “I think it’s appropriate. I’ve always had a sensitivity for the subject, and, of course, I counsel my clients to do the right thing, ” Bedsole says. “Also, not every discrimination claim is valid.”
Bedsole lives just down the street from the house where the failed bomb targeting Miglionico was planted. “We did some filming at the location, and my daughters got a chance to experience a little of what it has been like to work on the project, ” Bedsole says.
Bedsole plans to enter the documentary in Sundance and other film festivals across the country. In addition, Alabama Public Television has expressed interest in airing the film. It’s already scheduled for showing this August at a meeting of the American Bar Association. “We have had tremendous interest and support in the project all along, ” Bedsole says. “When people found out about it, many reached out both to contribute stories about Nina and donations to help make the film possible.”
Miglionico’s long-time law partner and executor of her estate, Sam Rumore, was instrumental in providing insights and materials for the film. The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and University of Alabama at Birmingham provided audio and video clips. “We were really fortunate in that Nina kept everything, including her correspondence, ” Bedsole says. “It’s as if she knew that one day the history of the changes she was pushing for would be told, and she took her role in documenting that very seriously.”
Fundraising for the documentary is ongoing. Bedsole’s law firm made a major contribution, and tax-deductible donations through the nonprofit site Fractured Atlas have helped raise a total of $40, 000 toward the film’s $57, 000 budget. The budget includes editing of the film and submissions to upcoming film festivals.
“Stand Up, Speak Out” also has helped stir up renewed recognition and enthusiasm for Miglionico’s many contributions to Birmingham. “People remember her with great fondness and admiration. Her life’s work demonstrates how far we have come, and that is something to be recognized and celebrated, ” Bedsole says.
The city council recently allocated funds for the creation of a bronze statue of Miglionico to be installed in Linn Park, across from Birmingham’s City Hall. Mayor William Bell, who once served on the council with Miglionico, helped convince the current council to provide the full $178, 000 needed to complete the project. “Mayor Bell said that Nina would never allow herself to be recognized for her work during her lifetime. They tried to name a street after her, but she refused, ” Bedsole says. “Now that she has passed, we can tell her story so future generations can continue to be inspired by it.”
Kathy Hagood and Art Meripol are freelance contributors to Business Alabama.
text by kathy hagood • photo by Art Meripol