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LIJ takes time out to remember King

The country has come a long way since the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but the nation is still not without shortcomings, the keynote speaker at the North Shore-Long Island Jewish’s 40th annual program in honor of the slain civil rights leader said Friday.

Kweisi Mfume, a former congressman and former head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, commended the health system for keeping King’s legacy alive.

“There’s a history of remembering here, which is important,” Mfume said to reporters before the program began at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, L.I. “I’m here because of my profound respect for the health system. I want to make sure I thank this health system for its commitment to community.”

Mfume said the biggest accomplishment since King’s death has been the end of segregation, but he said there are still “challenges” ahead.

He noted that 40 million Americans, a large percentage of them black, are without health care, unemployment is hovering in the double digits and there is a sense of apathy within the political system.

Mfume also said there is a public education system “that still cries out for attention.”

“These are real challenges,” he said, although King “would remind us of our progress” if he were alive today.

Mfume said it would take “a collective effort” for the country to meet the challenges.

“You work through the political process, and that’s sort of sluggish, but it works,” he said.

The former NAACP president also said the election of President Barack Obama “killed the old notion that the country can’t be led by anyone other than a white male.”

“It gave a whole generation of Americans some sort of affinity with the government” and brought in a new generation of activism, Mfume said.

He said King’s birthday ensures “that yearly we use our yardstick to measure how far we’ve come and what we have to do.”

The health system started celebrating King’s birthday 40 years ago after Robert McGhee, then an employee of the hospital, urged the administration to commemorate the civil rights leader.

“It was at a time when the employees ... wanted recognition of Dr. King’s birthday,” said McGhee, now 78 and retired.

“It’s really unbelievable,” McGhee said. “I never would’ve dreamed it would be here still after 40 years,” he said, referring to North Shore-LIJ’s Martin Luther King event.

McGhee said past keynote speakers included former Gov. Mario Cuomo and King’s children, Yolanda King and Martin Luther King III.

Reach reporter Howard Koplowitz by e-mail at hkoplowitz@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 173.

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