Retail giants raced to pull Confederate flag merchandise from their shelves and online marketplaces Tuesday amid a growing consumer backlash following the slayings of nine African American churchgoers last week in Charleston, S.C.
Amazon, eBay, Sears, Kmart and Etsy on Tuesday followed Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest retailer, which announced late Monday that it would stop selling Confederate merchandise.
Walgreens said that it doesn’t think it sells any Confederate-themed merchandise, but that if it does it will remove the items from stores.
The Twitter hashtag #takeitdown gained momentum through the day, calling for retailers to stop selling Confederate merchandise and for the Confederate flag to be removed from the grounds of the South Carolina capitol in Columbia, where it flies in front of a Civil War memorial.
Dylann Roof, the accused shooter at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, had a Confederate flag license plate on the front of his car and posed with photos of the flag on a Web site that belonged to him, law enforcement officials have said.
That rekindled a national debate about the symbolism of the flag, which has now become so controversial that retailers risk commercial harm if they leave it on their shelves, said Rob Swan, creative director and executive vice president for brand management firm Brand Image.
“When you go out on a limb and start to associate yourself with causes that are in any way ethically or philosophically controversial, you’re going to draw some ire from some part of society,” he said.
Whether the Confederate flag is meant to reflect racial hatred, the negative symbolism has overwhelmed its positive cultural capital, Swan said. “The fact that the power of that symbol can evoke that kind of visceral response is unbelievable,” he said.
Before Amazon confirmed Tuesday afternoon that it would ban sales, a Confederate flag costing $7.99 was the second-best-selling item on the site. A search for “Confederate flag” on Amazon yielded more than 29,000 results. A similar search on eBay yielded more than 1,200 items, including a string bikini adorned with the flag.
(Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton, during a campaign stop in Florissant, Mo., on Tuesday, backed Wal-Mart’s announcement that it would remove the flag from its shelves.
“I urge all sellers to do the very same,” said Clinton, who served on Wal-Mart’s board of directors from 1986 to 1992.
“It shouldn’t fly there,” Clinton said of the South Carolina state capitol. “It shouldn’t fly anywhere.”
Meanwhile, retailers were quick to distance themselves from the flag.
“We are reviewing this matter and are in the process of removing Confederate flag merchandise from our selling channels,” Howard Riefs, a Sears spokesman, said in a statement. “This is a prudent step to take as we seek to avoid offending our members.”
Removing Confederate flags and items containing the image is consistent with eBay’s policy of prohibiting items that “promote or glorify hatred, violence and racial intolerance,” eBay spokeswoman Johnna Hoff said in a statement.
Etsy spokeswoman Sara Cohen wrote in an e-mail that Etsy, “prohibit[s] items or listings that promote, support or glorify hatred and these items fall squarely into that category.”
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) said Monday that she favored removing the flag. She was joined by a chorus of lawmakers who also called for the flag’s removal, including Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a candidate for the GOP presidential nomination.
The South Carolina House of Representative and Senate passed an amendment Tuesday to return to session so they could debate a bill to remove the flag.