Redemptive Transcendence and Political Piety in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream,” by David A. Bobbitt

Bobbitt, David A.  The Rhetoric of Redemption: Kenneth Burke’s Redemption Drama and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech.” Communication, Media, and Politics Series. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004. ix + 140 pp.

Reviewed by Nathaniel I. Córdova, Willamette University
KB Journal 2.1 (Fall 2005)

David A. Bobbitt’s The Rhetoric of Redemption: Kenneth Burke’s Redemption Drama and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech” is a wonderfully produced and useful addition to our understanding of Kenneth Burke, and in particular to our gathering of the threads of Burke’s guilt-purification-redemption theory. Bobbitt’s arguments are consistent, well presented, and judicious. The book does a great service by collecting various lines of inquiry regarding Burke’s guilt-purification-redemption theory, and extending what has been a limited exploration of alternative modes of purification beyond the concepts of victimage and mortification.  Those seeking an intermediate-advanced level book on this crucial part of the Burkean corpus will not be disappointed.  This fine and readable book makes a provocative contribution to our understanding of Kennneth Burke, Martin Luther King, Jr., and to the history of the early part of the civil rights struggle in the US.

Drawing on Burke’s theories of the representative anecdote, the guilt-purification-redemption drama, and metaphoric analysis, Bobbitt argues for how King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” enacts a redemption drama that facilitated whites expiation of their latent guilt over the racial oppression of blacks. Chapter one provides an introduction and rationale for the chosen critical methodologies. Under the rubrics of agent and scene chapter two provides a background of the major intellectual influences on King’s thinking, and of the scene, the march on Washington and the cultural field preceding and surrounding it. Chapter three analyses the act, the redemption of the audience’s guilt, while chapter four extends the analysis of purification and redemption, and King’s absolution of white and black guilt through transcendence as means of purification. Chapter five introduces metaphoric analysis, and a brief review of the major metaphoric clusters in the speech, but it feels less tightly connected to the guilt-purification-redemption theme. Chapter six returns the reader to an extended evaluation of the guilt-purification-redemption theory, while the remaining chapter evaluates the legacy of the speech in light of the chosen form of the redemption drama and its limitations.

Bobbitt’s study is certainly of broader interest than its title and this description of chapters might suggest. The book seeks to place in context MLK, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech” by examining it for clues to how it became the defining, “representative, authorizing text on race relations in America” (x). Although at first glance this might not seem too different from previous studies of this speech, Bobbitt’s argument centers on how the speech derives its rhetorical appeal from its enactment of a particular cultural form, the redemption drama. According to Bobbitt, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech” doesn’t just provide for symbolic purification through victimage and mortification, but perhaps most provocatively, it gains its near mythic status as paradigmatic of race relations in America, by facilitating purification through movement and transcendence.  The resulting dramatic catharsis highlights the formative power on race relations wielded by what is considered the best well-known speech of American history.

The book has many insights that deserve a fuller accounting than I can give here. I will suggest, however, that the most provocative implication of this study revolves around something Bobbitt alludes to but in my estimation does not fully pursue:  the ability of MLK, Jr. to transform the values of his audience, and the language of his specific faith tradition into authentic political piety. As Bobbitt himself tells us, MLK, Jr. saw the moral goal of the civil rights movement as one of “redemption and reconciliation” (9). MLK, Jr.’s vision of the “beloved community” was the vision of a redeemed society that put aside petty squabbles and recognized its underlying common humanity in order to seek the common good.  We can speak of MLK, Jr., then, as involved in a double act of transcendence, for not only did the speech encompass through its underlying redemption drama his longings for redemption and reconciliation of whites and blacks, but it also allowed us to transcend the pieties that shaped the lives of the audience by transforming them into the public moral arguments necessary for life in this liberal democracy. Hence, along with capturing the public imagination by articulating the American vision and discourse of civil rights, MLK, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech reveals greatness in the same way that Lincoln’s Second Inaugural does, by gathering the threads of the particular, and weaving a compelling tapestry that helps us transcend the situation and move forward. Unfortunately, nowadays we confuse religious piety, or even religious statements by elected leaders, with true political piety, the translation, if you will, of social ferment into the shared values of a polis.

To be fair, shades of this argument about transcendence haunt Bobbitt’s study from the very beginning, although they fail to obtain the turning necessary for its full development. For example, writing about how the redemption drama as form is “especially applicable” to King’s approach, Bobbitt describes King as a “Christian preacher who became a secular spokesperson” (8 ). Such a perspective reads Martin Luther King, Jr. as divided between his efforts to gain political and legal successes and his vision of “the power of redemptive love to transform the hearts of human beings” (117). Yet, it is not so much that King becomes a secular spokesperson, but rather that he fuses both roles in order to gain a voice that speaks at the intersection of both positions. To use Burkean language, MLK, Jr. forges a reconciliation of both preacher and secular voices by enacting yet another redemption drama productive of an authentic political piety that infuses the “I Have a Dream” speech with even more transcendent power. Bobbitt comes closest to addressing the complications of this emergent synthesis when he addresses himself to King’s rhetoric as a rhetoric of assimilation, and asks, “Does the need to transcend differences necessarily result in a discourse which elides the practical difficulties of achieving assimilation? Can real, long-term divisions be transcended without ignoring the sociopolitical difficulties of effecting such assimilation?” (114). These questions, given the focus of the study, are directed at confronting the harsh realities of race relations in America, the difficulties of obtaining racial harmony through the legacy of the “I Have a Dream” speech, and not necessarily to the meta-process of articulating a viable discourse between the worlds King was seeking to bridge.

Keeping the book balanced between Burke and King is not an easy task. Neither Burke nor King recede far into the background as substantive, contextual, or methodological arguments are deployed. The result is a wonderful juxtaposition that illuminates both subjects well. This is a compelling book that productively advances Kenneth Burke’s theories of symbolic action, guilt-purification-redemption, and the legacy of MLK, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech for civil rights discourse in this country. My small criticism notwithstanding, Bobbitt does a very good job of critically engaging both, Burke and his interlocutors, and this speech and its formative power on matters of race relations in the U.S. and of the civil rights movement.

Readers expecting a book to enact that which it analyzes will not be disappointed. Bobbitt’s book is a performative embodiment of redemption for those of us who have not thought to look deeply at Burke’s guilt-purification-redemption drama, or who have taken Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech as creedal and accept it uncritically as the touchstone of civil rights discourse in America.

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