NEW YORK — Jack Rosenthal, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, government official, and civic leader who was the principal editor of a landmark 1968 federal report on urban riots that found an America moving “toward two societies, separate and unequal,” died Wednesday at his home in Manhattan. He was 82.
The cause was complications of pancreatic cancer, his wife, Holly Russell, said.
Mr. Rosenthal, the son of a refugee judge from Nazi Germany, merged multiple careers into a lifelong commitment to public service. He was a spokesman and strategist for Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy during the 1960s civil rights upheaval, oversaw the editorial page of The New York Times, where he championed criminal justice reforms and spotlighted the challenges of an aging population, and The Times Magazine.
He later nurtured numerous civic ventures, including raising millions of dollars for victims of the 2001 World Trade Center attack as president of The New York Times Foundation.
Mr. Rosenthal was the principal editor of a report by the Kerner Commission, officially called the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, led by Governor Otto Kerner Jr. of Illinois and created by President Lyndon B. Johnson to investigate the causes of the racial uprising in 1967. Mr. Rosenthal wrote the chapter titled “The Future of the Cities.”
Choosing integration as a goal, he wrote, would require more federal spending to mitigate the impact of segregation and deprivation in urban neighborhoods and expand opportunities for better housing, jobs, and schools.
“This choice would be aimed at reversing the movement of the country toward two societies, separate and unequal,” his chapter concluded.
Jay L. Kriegel and Peter C. Goldmark Jr., top aides to the commission’s vice chairman, Mayor John V. Lindsay of New York, highlighted the phrase in their widely circulated summary of the report, which Mr. Rosenthal edited.
While the summary’s blunt language angered Johnson, the report, released in February 1968, became a best-selling book and contributed to a national debate on race, especially after urban riots broke out again that April with the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Almost a half-century after the report was released, Mr. Rosenthal expressed regret that its prescriptions had only been partly realized. “All kinds of desegregation have occurred in sports, TV, entertainment, literature, but not in housing,” he said in an interview in July.
“What if the Irish or the Jews had been unable to move out of their ghettos?” he continued. “We would not be an integrated society. We would be an association of cantons, which is still true for black America.”
Mr. Rosenthal was deputy editorial page editor of The Times when he won a Pulitzer Prize, in 1982, for distinguished editorial writing. His subjects ranged widely, reflecting a boundless curiosity and intellectual breadth.
Despite a players’ walkout, he clung to the illusion of baseball as “an amiable, ordered world contained within the neat geometry of a stadium.” He challenged a generally tolerated prejudice against fat people. (“The social pressure against obesity no doubt benefits the general health,” he wrote. “What’s troublesome is that we are all so humorless about it, so relentless, so determined to punish the overweight.”)
On one day he could write about gun control: “There is no cogent argument for permitting free access to handguns. People with a legitimate need for them should not balk for a moment at sensible controls. But cogency is not the problem; it is politics.”
On another day he might comment on the Reagan administration’s social services agenda: “To say ‘no entitlements,’ or ‘let the states do it,’ or ‘let the private sector do it’ is a barely varnished way of saying ‘Don’t do it.’ And that is not a war against inflation. It is a war against the poor.”
Mr. Rosenthal edited the editorial page from 1986-1993, succeeding Max Frankel, who became The Times’ executive editor.
Frankel, who recruited him to the newspaper’s Washington bureau in 1969, said Mr. Rosenthal had “nourished countless talents among the staffs and contributors of The Times and at every turn gave voice to our shared liberal values.”
As president of The Times Foundation, Mr. Rosenthal started the 9/11 Neediest Fund, which raised more than $60 million for thousands of families, and he incubated a number of nonprofits, including the National Parks of New York Harbor Conservancy.
He was also a senior fellow at The Atlantic Philanthropies and a founder of ReServe, which has connected more than 2,600 adults 55 and older with full-time jobs in government and nonprofit private agencies in 12 states.
In addition to his wife, Russell, a sculptor and former advertising agency executive, he leaves two children, John Rosenthal and Annie Sindelar, both from an earlier marriage, to Marilyn Silver, which ended in divorce; two stepsons, Christopher and Andrew Russell; and six grandchildren.