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Confederate Flag Merchandise Is Delicate Topic For Retailers

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Ebay, Amazon, Sears - businesses across the country are removing items with images of the Confederate flag from their shelves, their sites and their ads in the aftermath of the massacre at a black church in Charleston. Walmart is on that list. Here's CEO Doug McMillon explaining his company's decision on Fox News.

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DOUG MCMILLON: We don't want any of the merchandise that we sell to be offensive.

MONTAGNE: But as NPR's Sam Sanders reports, not everyone's business is handling the Confederate flag in the same way.

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: Dixie Flag Manufacturing Company is a small independent flag seller in a San Antonio, Texas. Unlike a lot of big businesses, Dixie said yesterday that they'd keep selling the Confederate flag. Dixie Flag CEO Pete Van de Putte told me a story that helps lay out why.

PETE VAN DE PUTTE: Yesterday afternoon, I was being interviewed by one of the local TV channels, and a black man came in and went right up to the counter and says I want to buy a Confederate flag.

SANDERS: Van de Putte says he didn't ask why. But later, he found out. That camera crew that was interviewing Van de Putte, they also interviewed that black man.

VAN DE PUTTE: And I asked him, did he say why he bought it? He goes, yeah, he's going to burn it.

SANDERS: Van de Putte said yesterday, he's always sold controversial flags.

VAN DE PUTTE: Not only do we sell Confederate flags, we sell gay pride rainbow flags, and we sell Jewish flags, and we sell Syrian flags and Iranian flags and North Korea flags.

SANDERS: Van de Putte says he's even sold Nazi flags to history buffs. His choice to keep selling the Confederate flag came as several other larger businesses began to take it down. Dan Eaton teaches business ethics at San Diego State University, and he says in the aftermath of last week's shootings, there are two major reasons big businesses are moving so quickly on the Confederate flag.

DAN EATON: The tragedy occurred in South Carolina where the Confederate flag flies on the grounds of the state capital.

SANDERS: A hate crime in, say, New York state, might not of had the same visual effect, and, Eaton says, there's political pressure, too.

EATON: The commercial reaction is coming in the aftermath of South Carolina's governor saying that she intended to press for removing the flag from the state grounds.

SANDERS: Eaton says businesses will have to weigh their own pros and cons as they decide on the Confederate flag.

EATON: The gift shop for the Sons of the Confederacy will not make the same decision as eBay.

SANDERS: And sometimes the decision will be different for the same business. After my first interview with Pete Van de Putte at Dixie Flag yesterday, he called me back. He'd changed his mind. We talked, I guess - what? - half an hour ago.

VAN DE PUTTE: Yeah, we did.

SANDERS: What changed in that time?

VAN DE PUTTE: Oh, as far as the major flag manufacturers that we buy flags from, they've all made the decision that they will no longer sell it.

SANDERS: Van de Putte doesn't make any Confederate flags himself, so, no supply, he won't sell them. He said the big flag companies' decision was a surprise but probably the right one. Sam Sanders, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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