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For trio of Levinsons, dinner conversations were taken seriously

Michael Barnes, Out & About

Staff Writer
Austin 360

Not many Austin families publish three books at once. And not just flimsy volumes by off-brand publishers but rather substantial, reflective books on history, law, teaching and public policy.

Consider then Sanford Levinson, distinguished University of Texas legal scholar, his wife, Cynthia Levinson, esteemed children's writer and presenter, and their daughter, Meira Levinson, a former middle school instructor who currently teaches at Harvard University.

Their current books — "No Citizen Left Behind," "Framed: America's 51 Constitutions and the Crisis of Governance" and "We've Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children's March" — have been featured on national talk shows and editorial pages.

"We share the issue of social justice and the role of citizens in influencing politics and change," Cynthia Levinson, 67, says. "My focus is on children. Meira's is on children in schools."

"All of us are writing about citizens of all ages," Sanford Levinson, 70, says. "I deal with the most adult set. All of us are concerned with what it means to be a vibrant democracy, which means engagement."

Meira Levinson, 41, adds that she and her parents are interested in the workings of power.

"All the books address who has power," she says, "how power is distributed justly and unjustly and ways that we could readjust society to distribute power more equitably."

Hold on. Was the Levinson family always this cheerfully serious around their Tarrytown dinner table?

"Some years, my father tried to have analytic book conversations at the dinner table," Meira Levinson laughs during our group interview, conducted partially via Skype.

"Eventually, my sister and I rebelled. My mother tended to ask a lot about friends and teachers and upcoming tests. ... Friends always loved coming over to dinner because they knew there would be lively conversation."

"I believe that's a bit of a romantic account," Sanford Levinson counters. "I don't think I was ever a Kennedy sort of parent giving out assignments."

In fact, no assignments were given, but the family, which includes another daughter, did read books together.

"We also talked about the news." Meira Levinson says. "There was a very memorable conversation when my father complained that we were not talking honestly and openly with one another, because we were not talking about what we were reading. We were baffled because we thought it was open and honest to talk about who said what to whom outside the locker. But I always knew that what I had to say would be treated seriously."

Of the three books — which were toasted at a three-way book party in Washington, D.C. — Cynthia Levinson's is the most accessible, dealing with a little-remembered aspect of the civil rights marches in Birmingham, Ala.

"I was a high school senior in 1963 when these events took place," she says. "I thought I knew what was going on in the news. ... I thought I knew about ‘Bull' Connor, public safety commissioner in Birmingham, and how he put down protests against segregation through attacking marchers with water hoses and dogs."

A few years ago, however, she wrote an article for a children's magazine about music in the civil rights period.

"While I was doing the research, I discovered the key fact: The people ‘Bull' Connor was attacking were children," she says. "Some 3,000 to 4,000 kids between 9 and 18 years of age were arrested. The youngest one, 9 years old, spent a week in the Birmingham jail, two weeks after Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his famous letter from the same jail system."

Her book, generously documented with photographs, focuses on four participants whom she interviewed at length.

A scholar not afraid of dissenting opinions, Sanford Levinson picks apart our flawed U.S. Constitution in "Framed."

"I try to draw the reader in by making some very, very critical comments about Tom Friedman and other pundits who from my perspective are refusing to connect the dots between our present political unhappiness and our Constitution," he says. "He has described the American political system as pathological. I applaud him for that."

Yet the professor thinks Friedman and others ignore the inherent obstacles of an Electoral College that discourages third political parties and focuses all energies on "battleground states," as well as a Senate where Wyoming, the least populated state, has the same representation as California.

"That's just the start of what's wrong with the Senate," he says. He also derides the near impossibility of amending the Constitution.

Concerned with educating young citizens who are usually left outside the system, Meira Levinson starts each chapter with an anecdote from her experiences as a teacher in Atlanta and Boston.

"So it is both narrative and analytic or philosophical," she says. "It's written for adults primarily, although I've had some young readers read it. One really sweet high school student has been working her way through it and sending me fan mail along the way."

"No Citizen Left Behind" shares concrete tips for reducing the civic empowerment gap.

"My father's book also has a lot of recommendations about how we could change things," she says, a bit slyly, "but mine doesn't call for a new constitutional convention."

Contact Michael Barnes at mbarnes@statesman.com