US retailers rush to ditch Confederate flag merchandise

A man holding the Confederate flag at a South Carolina rally.
A man holding the Confederate flag at a South Carolina rally.AFP

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The trickle of US companies abandoning Confederate flag merchandise became a flood Tuesday, after mega-retailer Walmart announced it would no longer stock items bearing the controversial "Stars and Bars" image.

Sears, Kmart and online marketplace Ebay joined Walmart - the world's largest retailer and a staple in the South - in abandoning goods bearing the image of the Confederate battle flag, seen by some as a symbol of Southern heritage, but by others as a racist relic of a bygone era.

Major retailers rushed to distance themselves from the controversial symbol after last week's deadly attack on a black church in South Carolina, and comments from the attacker that suggested he drew inspiration from the Confederate flag, as well as white supremacist iconography.

Meanwhile, US news reports said that Civil War enthusiasts - apparently worried that they no longer will be able to easily get their hands on Confederate symbols - have been snapping up flags and other Confederate flag-adorned merchandise online.

Sales of Amazon's most popular Confederate flags rocketed by more than 3,600 per cent in just 24 hours, according to the online retailer's website Tuesday.

The blistering increase in sales for the rebel flag comes as many brick and mortar stores pull merchandise bearing the banner of the Confederacy - seen as a symbol of racial violence and oppression by many, while some southerners romanticise it as a link to the historical south.

Civil rights activists have long pushed for it to be removed from official use, and the debate around it has returned to the spotlight since last week's massacre in Charleston, which left nine people dead at the hands of an alleged white supremacist who was seen in pictures with the banner.

"We never want to offend anyone with the products that we offer," Walmart spokesman Brian Nick said in a statement Monday.

"We have taken steps to remove all items promoting the Confederate flag from our assortment - whether in our stores or on our web site," he said.

The company's chief executive Doug McMillon said in a television interview Tuesday that he had not even known that Walmart carried Confederate flag merchandise.

"We just don't want to sell products that makes anyone feel uncomfortable and we felt like that was the case," he said.

"This was the right thing to do," he said.

South Carolina's Republican Governor Nikki Haley led growing bipartisan calls Monday for the removal of the flag from the grounds of the state capitol after the Charleston shooting.

A website apparently created by accused gunman Dylann Roof, 21, includes a racist screed and photographs of him holding a Confederate flag and a handgun.

Roof has been charged with the June 17 rampage at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston during a Bible study class.

His arrest warrant alleged he shot the six women and three men, aged 26 through 87, multiple times with a high-calibre handgun and then stood over a survivor to make a "racially inflammatory" statement.