The life and legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was celebrated across Long Island and throughout New York State on Monday, with calls for public service and a commitment to preserve voting rights for Black Americans.

At Bethlehem Judea Church in Hempstead, nearly 75 people gathered for Long Island's oldest celebration of the iconic civil rights leader, sharing in song, poems, and Scripture. The annual Hempstead Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade was canceled because of inclement weather.

Linnet Bligen, who was raised in Hempstead and now serves as director of mergers and acquisitions at Thermo Fisher Scientific, a Massachusetts biotechnology company, urged the crowd in the church to uphold King's legacy by serving others.

"Dr. King's journey to greatness was not born out of selfish desire to become extraordinary," Bligen said in the event's keynote address. "Dr. King's legacy of greatness rose from a vision of love to achieve equality, civility and mere dignity for an extraordinary people. Love is an action that must be demonstrated through our service to others … Honor his legacy through service. Be a tutor if you're good at math. Be a coach if you can catch a ball. Be a mentor if you have wisdom and love."

Lawmakers said King's message is particularly profound this year, amid ongoing debates about voting rights access and one year removed the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

"We have endured years of political division, injustice and repeated attacks on our democracy," said State Sen. Kevin Thomas (D-Levittown). "As we are reminded of these truths, we arrive at an MLK Day that is more significant this year than in the past. Dr. King's life and legacy call on us to remember the power of our collective voice. Voting is an essential part of our democracy's infrastructure and we cannot afford to have our voices stripped away."

Nearby at the Joysetta & Julius Pearse African American History Museum of Nassau County, crowds gathered to learn of King's work, including his visits to Long Island. The walls of the Hempstead museum feature Newsday photographs of King accepting an honorary degree at Hofstra University, visiting Lakeview, Rockville Centre, Wyandanch and Fire Island.

People join together to honor the life and legacy of...

People join together to honor the life and legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on Monday at Bethlehem Judea Church in Hempstead. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

Julius Pearse, a civil rights leader and Freeport Village's first Black police officer, said the museum's goal is to present the "hidden history and hidden accomplishments" of Black Americans.

"We were not just slaves," Pearse said. "The country would not be where it is today if not for the contributions and efforts of Black folks, in particular, Black women."

New Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman, who toured the museum Monday, called King a childhood hero.

"We have a made a tremendous amount of progress and a lot of it is due to Martin Luther King," Blakeman said. "But it's a work in progress still. There's more work to do. There are people who are ignorant or ill-spirited and we have to fight racism like we have to fight any other hate language. We want Nassau County to be welcoming to all people."

Elsewhere on the island, roughly 70 people logged on to a virtual commemoration of King's life that featured a video presentation mixing song, dance and civic engagement activities, as they sought to embody the civil rights leader’s focus on equality and justice.

The program, sponsored by the Mothers Club of Wheatley Heights and The Concerned Fathers Association., in partnership with the Half Hollow Hills Community Library, highlighted the impact of King’s "I Have a Dream" speech from members of the civil rights leader's family.

His surviving daughter, the Rev. Bernice King, said in the video that her father’s speech "is relevant today because we still have not created this beloved community, this community, this society, this nation that is inclusive and that respects the dignity and worth of all people. We’re still living in a time where people are looked upon in a very negative light. They’re treated, in fact, in very inhumane ways. And I think my father is speaking to us: That is your brother, that is your sister regardless of our differences, regardless of our ideologies."

Pam Doughty, the program’s mistress of ceremonies, noted that Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the only federal holiday observed as a National Day of Service, was a "day on, not a day off." The video featured Long Islanders engaged in helping others, including providing food and clothing for those in shelters.

Gov. Kathy Hochul, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's annual King tribute, said King's assassination in 1968 helped inspire her political career.

"It inspired me to realize that his work must carry on," Hochul said. "All of us must carry on his work even decades later because the work is not finished, my friends, the work is far from finished."

With Olivia Winslow

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