By Joseph Ax

NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York Governor Andrew Cuomo on Sunday launched an initiative to combat hate crimes and protect civil rights, saying the divisive U.S. presidential campaign had prompted a wave of disturbing incidents across the state and the country.

In a speech at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City, Cuomo said he would form a hate crimes unit of the state police, propose legislation increasing protections against discrimination for public school students and establish a private-public legal defense fund for impoverished immigrants.

"The ugly political discourse of the election did not end on Election Day," Cuomo, a Democrat, told the well-known African-American congregation. "In many ways it has gotten worse, (growing) into a social crisis that now challenges our identity as a state and as a nation and our people."

Civil rights groups including the ACLU have expressed concern over reports of a spate of incidents that appear motivated by racism, bigotry and sexism since Republican Donald Trump won the presidential election on Nov. 8.

Those reports include a swastika painted on a baseball dugout in the western New York village of Wellsville with the words "Make America White Again," a racist version of Trump's slogan, "Make America Great Again."

Several New York officials were scheduled to appear on Sunday at a rally organized by The Beastie Boys at Brooklyn's Adam Yauch Park, which was named for the late member of the hip-hop group. The musicians called for the event after swastikas were found drawn at the park.

On Friday, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said the Justice Department is investigating whether any of the incidents constituted hate crimes, which would trigger harsher penalties for the perpetrators.

Cuomo, whose name has been floated as a possible Democratic presidential candidate in 2020, joined other officials in his party who have denounced the attacks since Election Day.

Mayors in a number of large cities, including New York, Chicago and San Francisco, have insisted in recent weeks that their communities would remain so-called "sanctuary cities," despite Trump's campaign pledge to cut off federal funding for such municipalities.

In sanctuary cities, local law enforcement generally do not help federal authorities search for undocumented immigrants.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Diane Craft)