Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Speech Communication

First Advisor

Andrew A. King


This dissertation presents an exposition and development of Kenneth Burke's theory of guilt-purification-redemption (also referred to as the "redemption drama"), and then an application of that theory through a critical analysis of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. King's speech is treated as the "representative anecdote" of the moderate wing of the first phase of the civil rights movement. The speech became an authorizing text on race relations and provided the movement with an articulation of its logic and narrative form. Usually Burke's theory is seen as positing two primary modes of purification of guilt: victimage and mortification. This study develops aspects of the victimage/mortification family of purificatory modes not previously considered by Burke or Burkean scholars. It also identifies and develops two other categories of purificatory modes--purification through rhetorical transcendence and purification through images of change, movement, and dramatic catharsis--which have received little attention from Burkean scholars. In "I Have a Dream" King purifies African-Americans of guilt by a type of victimage/mortification in which black suffering under oppression performs an expiatory function. King's major mode of purification, however, is transcendence. King purifies black and white guilt by promising redemption through appeals to unitary, transcendent principles which exploit America's most potent secular and religious myths. King also effects purification through the use of images of change, movement, and dramatic catharsis. The metaphoric clusters in the "I Have a Dream" speech are also analyzed in order to demonstrate how they reinforce the structure of the guilt-purification-redemption pattern. The study concludes with an evaluation of Burke's theory of guilt-purification-redemption and an assessment of "I Have a Dream" and its legacy. It is concluded that King's assimilationist vision as articulated in the "Dream" speech transcended the nation's racial divisions, but at the expense of eliding the socio-political difficulties of achieving such assimilation. The implications of viewing the civil rights movement, and race relations in general, through the prism of a redemption drama are analyzed.