U.S. Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch was the keynote speaker at the 35th annual Fifth Congressional District Black History Month Breakfast in Upper Marlboro, Md, on Feb. 6, 2016. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

U.S. Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch, the first African American woman to helm the nation’s chief prosecutorial office, addressed hundreds of Maryland residents and political leaders Saturday morning at a breakfast commemorating Black History Month, touting the Justice Department’s crackdown on hate crimes and its fight to protect voting rights.

“We’ve gone to court to defend the right to vote that so many fought so hard to secure, because as we take this month to consider hallowed places, for African Americans surely, surely the voting booth must be one of them,” Lynch said to applause. “We’ve convicted more defendants on hate crimes charges than in any other time in history because this country should be a safe place . . . for all who seek freedom.”

Her remarks were delivered at the 35th annual Fifth Congressional District Black History Month Breakfast, which was held at Camelot by Martin’s catering hall in Prince George’s County. The event, whose previous speakers have included President Obama and former attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr., was emceed by Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.). In his remarks introducing Lynch, the longtime congressman denounced the Senate’s lengthy delay in confirming her as Holder’s successor.

“Sadly, she sustained one of the longest nominating processes — 166 days — that we’ve seen,” Hoyer said. “We’ve come a long way. But when somebody of the quality and the integrity and the honesty and the character of Loretta Lynch has to wait 166 days to be confirmed as the great attorney general of the United States of America, we still have some ways to go.”

In her speech, Lynch obliquely referenced the spate of deadly police shootings across the country, noting that the Justice Department is “spearheading efforts to build trust between law enforcement officers and the communities we serve.”

She also attacked what she views as the divisive nature of today’s political commentary. “We’ve seen hateful rhetoric creep into our public discourse. If you listen to this rhetoric, it urges us to choose the easy path of blame, suspicion, fear, distrust over the much harder road — the American road — of conversation, support, optimism and opportunity.”

Lynch ended her speech by citing a sermon by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: “We must build dikes of courage to hold back the flood of fear.”

“He knew — as we have to know — that there were no guarantees,” Lynch said, “except the guarantee that nothing would change if he did not act. And that’s the only guarantee any of us have.”