Entering a debate that has played out for years mostly in the political realm, many of the nation’s largest retailers abruptly decided this week to stop selling merchandise tied to the Confederate battle flag.
One by one, beginning with Walmart on Monday night, companies including Sears/Kmart, eBay, Amazon, Etsy and Google Shopping disavowed, sometimes in strong moral terms, merchandise that has been sold quietly for decades.
“We have decided to prohibit Confederate flags and many items containing this image because we believe it has become a contemporary symbol of divisiveness and racism,” eBay said in a statement, echoing the sentiments of others in the aftermath of the fatal shooting last week of nine black parishioners in a South Carolina church and the arrest of a white suspect.
The killings have renewed a focus on the Confederate flag, which had been displayed in a photograph of the accused gunman. Large segments of the public have demanded that it be removed from its perch at the State House grounds in Charleston. On Tuesday, as the flag continued to be held up as a symbol of hatred and slavery, South Carolina lawmakers were considering whether to have it taken down.
The retailers’ actions have illuminated a patchwork industry of T-shirts, mugs, beach towels and hundreds of other items bearing the Confederate symbol that are made everywhere from factories in China to tiny craft shops.
More than 29,000 such offerings could be found on the Amazon website Tuesday morning, including bikinis, shower curtains, ceramic coasters, cupcake toppers and even a tongue ring.
The company had remained silent as other retailers made their announcements. But by midafternoon, after emotional posts poured onto the company’s Facebook page, a company official confirmed that it would take down all Confederate merchandise.
Some consumers used the hashtag #takeitdown. “I am a Prime subscriber, but I sadly will not be buying anything from Amazon if your confederate flag merchandise is not removed from the site,” Meredith Mac wrote.
“I am APPALLED that you are continuing to sell (and honestly, that you EVER sold) Confederate flag merchandise,” wrote Diane Scholten.
She added, “Odd to think that in this instance Wal-Mart is doing a better job than you are.”
Yet even as companies were vowing to discontinue the items, sales of them were soaring. Confederate flags jumped to the top of Amazon’s Patio, Lawn & Garden category, with purchases of some items spiking by more than 5,000 percent.
By midafternoon Tuesday, the Dixie Flag Company in San Antonio had sold 25 Confederate flags in 24 hours, according to the company’s president, Pete Van de Putte. Usually, the company has no more than three orders a week for the flags and sometimes only three in a month, he said.
The reasons for the purchases varied significantly. One customer at a small Georgia shop told the owner she wanted to line her front yard with Confederate flags. Mr. Van de Putte said a black man had come into Dixie Flags on Monday with his young daughter seeking to buy the biggest Confederate flag in the store. He said he was buying it to burn it.
While large retailers were feeling public pressure to pull the items from their shelves and websites, a number of smaller companies refused to stop selling Confederate-related merchandise, no matter how controversial.
At Wildman’s, a jumble of a shop in Kennesaw, Ga., about 40 miles from Atlanta, that sells numerous sizes of Confederate flags, along with magnets, license plates and barbecue aprons, the 84-year-old owner, Dent Myers, said of Walmart and others: “They are chicken. Kowtowing to the herds.”
Walmart’s action had even brought him some new business. Jack Hicklin, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who had a knife holster and a handgun in his pocket, came in looking for Confederate flag tank tops after learning that Walmart would no longer carry them.
“We got all these killings and people are worried about the damn flag?” he said.
In a midafternoon interview, Mr. Van de Putte of the Dixie Flag Company said his company was committed to continuing to sell the flag.
“There are many flags that we sell that somebody could find offensive,” he said. “We sell gay pride flags. We sell Jewish flags. We sell Arab-country flags. When you’re in the business of selling flags and symbols, I think you have a responsibility to offer everything and not make those value judgments because someone might find something objectionable politically.”
But a few hours later, Vanessa Van de Putte, his daughter and the vice president of the company, called to say that the business had changed its mind after some major suppliers, including a venerable manufacturer, Annin Flagmakers, had said they would no longer make Confederate flags. “Based on the consensus in the industry and the current situation, as of this time we are not going to sell the Confederate battle flag,” she said.