Johnson wrote “Fifty Years” to celebrate the fifty-year anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. He uses a regular iambic tetrameter meter in the poem and an abab rhyme scheme. The poem is ceremonial, the poet reminding the reader that homage is due to Abraham Lincoln for his insight, his sacrifice, and his action.
Despite the conventional nature of the poem, Johnson puts forward significant arguments that would later become part of the Civil Rights movement. Africans were brought here against their will; nonetheless, African Americans have more than earned the right of “sonship” through working the soil, fighting in war, and being loyal to a country that enslaved them. The poet argues that African American experience in this country is of divine origin: “A part of His unknown design.” Accordingly, God still controls the destiny of the race, and he will not allow the sacrifice of Lincoln and others to “come to naught.”