MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - The parents of Matthew Shepard made a stop in Memphis for a hate crime summit with local law enforcement Monday. Shepard was a college student brutally murdered in Wyoming in 1998 because he was gay. The murder and the family's ensuing awareness efforts have continued to make headlines for years.
We also learned of a Memphis connection to the case, as it was revealed Coretta Scott King reached out to the Shepard family via letter after Matt's death.
"I was stunned and deeply saddened to learn of the killing of your beloved son, Matthew Shepard," said Dennis Shepard. "His beautiful spirit will live on in the hearts of all those he touched, sincerely, Coretta Scott King."
The words seemed to take the air out of the meeting room Monday at the National Civil Rights Museum. Both Dennis and Judy Shepard were overcome with emotion as those listening sat silent. The letter would seemingly connect two families in their fight for equality.
"It's really important for us to be in Memphis," said Judy Shepard. "This is the center of civil rights, hate crime movement. It's really critical."
The family helped lead a day-long summit with various local, state, and federal law enforcement leaders. The Matthew Shepard Foundation sponsored it, focusing on hate crimes. The message aimed to stamp out silence on reporting in the south, with advocates saying Tennessee law requires both victims and law enforcement agencies to report, but they don't do it enough.
"We are not perfect in Memphis, but I do know this. We understand and learn from our history," said Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland.
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) monitors reported hate crimes yearly in the state. The latest report from 2016 indicates out of 257 victims total, the most common biases are racial, followed by sexual and religious. Federal authorities also monitor these investigations.
"We're here waiting to find applicable federal statues to prosecute any potential hate crimes," said Tracey Branch, Supervising Special Agent, FBI, Memphis field office.
Dennis and Judy Shepard say law enforcement plays a critical role in making victims feel supported, and though gay acceptance has come a long way since Matt's death – there's still much work to be done.
"That's our goal now is for people to live an authentic life," said Judy Shepard.