There Are Still Confederate Flag Shirts for Sale in Wildwood

National retailers have stopped selling Confederate flag merchandise. It still flies freely in Wildwood, New Jersey.

Confederate Flags in Wildwood

Confederate flags for sale on the boardwalk in Wildwood (Photo: Dan McQuade)

For four years now, I’ve been chronicling Wildwood boardwalk t-shirts in a silly column on this website. Last year, I wrote about a constant presence on the Wildwood boardwalk for as long as I can remember: Confederate battle flag t-shirts.

This is particularly odd, since New Jersey was a Union state (it was the last state in the north to abolish slavery). White people wearing the Confederate battle flag can’t go with a lame “southern pride” defense when they’re in New Jersey. I checked out a sampling of 15 t-shirt stores while in Wildwood this weekend; I was able to find Confederate flag merchandise in 13 of them.

Earlier this month, a man went into a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, and shot nine dead. The shooter said he wanted to start a race war; there were many photos of him holding the Confederate battle flag. There has been an outpouring of support for removing the flag, which now appears likely to be taken down from the South Carolina capitol grounds.

Many major retailers — such as Amazon, eBay, Sears, Walmart and even Apple — have pulled merchandise bearing the Confederate flag. I admit I had never checked any of these sites for Confederate merchandise. Who knew Walmart and Sears were mini-Wildwood boardwalks, right in our own neighborhoods!

But the major chains avoid places like Wildwood that are only packed a few months each year. Many Wildwood boardwalk stores are independent — though there now is a Dunkin Donuts and a Verizon store — and don’t have any corporate pressure from above. There aren’t organized online campaigns against Confederate flag shirts on the Wildwood boardwalk.

Much like Walmart, the owners of Wildwood boardwalk t-shirt stores aren’t trying to endorse white supremacy when they sell a Confederate flag t-shirt. They’re trying to make a buck in the short tourist season. The stores all basically sell the same gear. They copy from each other. (Tattooed Disney princess shirts have made a dramatic spread to every t-shirt shop in just a month.) Many boardwalk workers are immigrants, and may only be here a few months each year.

No store worker I chatted up would talk on the record about the Confederate flag shirts this weekend. One did tell me a Confederate flag hoodie was a big seller (which is kind of odd, since it’s been hot). Workers at the store with the largest display of Confederate merchandise said they hadn’t received any complaints. That store, shown above, also says it is closing for reasons unrelated to confederate flags.

In the early 1990s, stores sold anti-gay t-shirts featuring the Trix rabbit. Gov. Christine Todd Whitman got involved. General Mills talked with its lawyers. People protested in Belmar. A boycott of stores selling anti-gay shirts was organized.

You don’t see those shirts any more. Changing societal attitudes, and not protests, may have been the true driver of their elimination. But the furor the past week over the flag shows that societal attitudes toward the Confederate flag have changed, too. One South Carolina legislator read nearly 1,000 letters where people “poured their souls on ‘page after page after page’” against the flag. Confederate flag shirts may sell, but the past few days have shown that a large number of people are offended by stores that sell that type of merchandise.

Eventually, something will happen, like a TV station doing an exposé-style piece on confederate flags at the Wildwood boardwalk. The bad publicity will likely lead to store owners ceasing to sell the shirts. (Um, Gov. Chris Christie probably won’t get involved like Whitman did.) Yes, Wildwood is a weird island beach town that is very much in a time warp and the Wildwood boardwalk has its own decorum separate from the rest of the civilized world. But eventually people will get angry at Wildwood shop owners like they got angry at Walmart.

It’s only a matter of time before Wildwood boardwalk shops follow the national retailers and stop selling Confederate flag shirts. And hey, Wildwood’s always working on its image. The boardwalk will get a little classier if stores stop selling Confederate flag t-shirts.