John Henry was a man and yet larger than a man. In the history of human struggle against discrimination, John Henry has come to represent the nature of conflict, of the kind that has pitted the exploitative class against an army of the exploited. Human nature, Henry seemed to be informing his fellow workers, was not exactly of the edifying kind.
And from that exposition of the truth sprang thoughts of liberation from exploitation. And what better way to bring the exploited and the deprived and the desperate together than through the symbolism of the hammer and the sickle? For the very first time in history, one might as well argue, the peasant and the worker came together. In a larger sense, the world of suffering men came together. If Henry perished for a cause, the cause continued to matter.
And so it was that the hammer and the sickle, ensconced on banners carried by the have-nots of history and of society, came as a clarion call to revolution. If governments did not better the quality of life, such governments did not need to exist. If the land, tilled by the poor peasant, did not fulfill his needs, reforming circumstances would become necessary. If the sweat of his brow would not allow the worker in a factory to have his family lead a life unhampered by worry, changes would be required in the social structure.
Thus did Marx and Engels reason with themselves, indeed with each other, and go forth into the unknown with weapons as potent as socialism and then communism. Man's struggle went on, through the Russian Revolution of 1917, through the Long March of China's hardy communists in the 1930s. In Asia and Africa and Latin America, as Fidel Castro and Salvador Allende and Che Guevara and Hugo Chavez were to demonstrate all too well, the hammer-and-sickle was the poetry of the masses. The poet was, and would be for all times, John Henry.
Hammer in hand, John Henry rekindled courage in the heart of man. A man ain't nothin' but a man, proclaimed he.
Every May, and through every season, the winds echo that song of courage and grit and commitment to the cause of man. We recall John Henry. We revive the man in all of us. We do not die, for John Henry, through dying, gave us reason to live. We live, to send the predatory few packing in the larger interest of the well-meaning, truly deprived many.