First came the announcement that Wal-Mart would be raising wages for half a million employees to several dollars above the federally mandated minimum. Then the company issued a curt condemnation of its home state’s religious freedom law, which was seen as anti-gay. Then it raised wages for another 100,000 workers. Wal-Mart was only halfway through 2015, and already it was on a progressive roll.

This year has been a remarkable about-face for the company that launched half a century ago in tiny Rogers, Ark., (population 5,700, according to the 1960 census) and has long been associated with a certain brand of publicity-averse small-town conservatism. For years, it refused to stock music with lyrics or album art deemed “objectionable,” resisted unionization efforts among its employees and donated the vast majority of campaign contributions to Republican candidates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

The rest of the time, Wal-Mart avoided wading into cultural debates — founder Sam Walton was so uninterested in making a statement he refused to hire a public relations team, according to Charles Fishman, author of “The Wal-Mart Effect.”

“Sam Walton believed you ran a business every day. You don’t take symbolic stands,” Fishman told The Washington Post.

No longer.

The Confederate flag on display, from 1938 to today

WASHINGTON, DC- JUNE 21: A confederate flag reflected in the window of a gift shop that sells them in Seligman, Arizona. The Confederate flag (aka the Rebel Flag) can be seen in plain view in almost any part of the United States although sightings are more common in the South. Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

On Monday, the company took another step into the politically and emotionally charged arena of America’s culture wars.

In a single sweeping move, it eliminated all Confederate-flag-adorned items from its Web site: a T-shirt emblazoned with the blue, red and gray banner and the words “Rebel Firefighter.” A belt buckle bearing the flag and the words “Country Girl.” Towels. Bandannas. Swimsuits. And flags, of course. Plenty of them.

“We never want to offend anyone with the products that we offer,” spokesman Brian Nick said in a statement. “We have taken steps to remove all items promoting the confederate flag from our assortment — whether in our stores or on our web site.”

Why is there a Confederate flag on the grounds of the South Carolina state capitol? (Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post)

The decision to banish the flag from Wal-Mart shelves came after several days of heated debate over a Confederate flag flying near the South Carolina state Capitol. In the wake of last week’s deadly shooting at a historic black church in Charleston, S.C., critics argued that the flag should be removed from the Capitol grounds — and ultimately, Gov. Nikki Haley (R) agreed.

That activists would question the presence of the flag was not surprising. That presidential candidates and political figures would add their two cents was perhaps even less so.

But for the world’s largest retailer to voluntarily wade into the controversy and side against the disputed symbol of the Old South is both a surprise and a sign that Wal-Mart may become an unlikely new bellwether of social change in the United States.

In late March, the company came out strongly against Arkansas’s religious freedom law, which opponents said would allow people and corporations to deny service to gays and other minority groups. The law “threatens to undermine the spirit of inclusion present through the state of Arkansas and does not reflect the values we proudly uphold,” read a statement tweeted by chief executive Doug McMillon.

“They’ve done a complete 180,” Justin G. Nelson, co-founder and president of the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, told the New York Times. In 2008, then-chief executive Mike Duke signed a petition in favor of legislation barring gay couples from adopting in Arkansas. Three years later, the company received a 40 percent grade on the Human Rights Campaign’s annual Corporate Equality Index (today that number is 90 percent). It wasn’t until 2013 that the company expanded its health insurance benefits to include workers’ domestic partners, most of whom were in same-sex relationships. (Same-sex marriage is not legal in Arkansas.)

“The fact that they came out and said that this bill cannot discriminate against LGBT people, that’s very powerful to say,” Nelson continued. “I don’t know that there is a stronger corporate voice that could have said that than Wal-Mart. It’s been an evolution. It almost mirrors how America has evolved in those issues.”

Wal-Mart’s evolution on gay marriage does seem to have paralleled America’s, rather than precipitating or following it. Back in 2008, when ex-chief executive Duke was signing petitions to prevent gay couples from adopting, the proportion of people who supported same-sex marriage was about 40 percent. Recent polls have found that 6 in 10 Americans now support same-sex marriage, just as current chief executive McMillon declared his opposition to the Arkansas religious freedom act.

Something similar can be said of Wal-Mart’s other recent progressive cause: employee pay. In February, the company announced it would raise wages for half a million workers and followed up with a similar wage hike this month. Like its stance on LGBT issues, the move toward higher wages reflected a broader shift. It was one of a group of companies — Gap, Aetna, Ikea — to raise wages, and a 2014 poll from the Pew Research Center found that 73 percent of voters favored raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour.

In both cases, Wal-Mart’s decision to align itself with an issue traditionally seen as liberal has been a pragmatic one, according to analysts. The argument for each move is slightly different — the company’s stance on LGBT issues is mostly symbolic, while raising the minimum wage has implications beyond the way it is perceived by customers. But both have been framed by the company (which now has plenty of public relations staff) as a statement of values, evidence that the world’s largest retailer can act conscientiously.

Even more so than those previous decisions, Wal-Mart’s announcement Monday is a dramatic departure from its onetime policy of avoiding controversy.

Here's what the GOP presidential hopefuls have to say about the Confederate flag in South Carolina. (Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

It didn’t need to make a move on the issue — unlike the religious freedom laws that sparked outcries from companies across the country, no other retailer had made the decision to remove all Confederate flag products from its offerings (though Sears also announced that it will be ending third-party sales of the flag on its online marketplace). And this issue in particular touches Wal-Mart at its roots.

“Wal-Mart was born in Arkansas and is the store in some ways of the old Confederacy, the store of the deep South and the heartland. Across the South, Wal-Mart is a hugely prominent force in how people live,” Fishman said.

By rejecting the flag that some Southerners still claim as a symbol of their heritage, Wal-Mart “is not just following the cultural conversation, they’re shaping it,” he said.

It’s hard to tell why Wal-Mart made the decision, Fishman said — maybe it came from the top; maybe it came from employees who didn’t want to be in the business of ringing up Confederate flag apparel at the checkout line; maybe it was inspired by the chorus of leaders across the political spectrum who seemed to agree Monday that the Rebel flag no longer belongs in the public space. Undoubtedly, it was an expression of horror over the nine slayings at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., last week and sympathy for the victims — feelings that most of the country shares.

Even so, Fishman noted, removing the flag wasn’t exactly a hard decision to make, business-wise. “I don’t think any digits in Wal-Mart’s financial filings will change going forward as a result of this,” he said. There would be much higher financial and social costs to eliminating its stocks of firearms, which Wal-Mart sells more of than any other retailer in America.

But still, the Monday announcement sets a precedent, Fishman said. He’ll give them credit for that.

“For those of us who watch Wal-Mart,” he said, “it’s nice to catch them doing the right thing.”

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