When Crack Was King

When Crack Was King

A People's History of a Misunderstood Era

About the Book

A kaleidoscopic account of the crack cocaine era and a community’s ultimate resilience, told through a cast of characters whose lives illuminate the dramatic rise and fall of the epidemic
“A poignant and compelling re-examination of a tragic era in America history . . . insightful . . . and deeply moving.”—Bryan Stevenson, author of #1 New York Times bestseller Just Mercy

The crack epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s is arguably the least examined crisis in American history. Beginning with the myths inspired by Reagan’s war on drugs, journalist Donovan X. Ramsey’s exacting analysis traces the path from the last triumphs of the Civil Rights Movement to the devastating realities we live with today: a racist criminal justice system, continued mass incarceration and gentrification, and increased police brutality.
When Crack Was King follows four individuals to give us a startling portrait of crack’s destruction and devastating legacy: Elgin Swift, an archetype of American industry and ambition and the son of a crack-addicted father who turned their home into a “crack house”; Lennie Woodley, a former crack addict and sex worker; Kurt Schmoke, the longtime mayor of Baltimore and an early advocate of decriminalization; and Shawn McCray, community activist, basketball prodigy, and a founding member of the Zoo Crew, Newark’s most legendary group of drug traffickers.
Weaving together riveting research with the voices of survivors, When Crack Was King is a crucial reevaluation of the era and a powerful argument for providing historically violated communities with the resources they deserve.
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Praise for When Crack Was King

“Forget what you think you know about the crack era, because this definitive account resets the record. Both unflinching and compassionate, it has the power to expand your heart. Donovan X. Ramsey writes with a poetry befitting the lives of the people he profiles, a poetry long denied to the victims and survivors of crack cocaine. He reveals how the epidemic was one of heartbreak, in the crushing days of retrenchment from civil rights and the war on poverty. He urges us to celebrate the resilience of a people who beat back a plague with shockingly little compassion or health care from a disdainful nation. It’s a stunning and unforgettable debut.”—Heather McGhee, author of New York Times bestseller The Sum of Us

“If you lived through the crack years, you haven’t forgotten them. If you weren’t born yet, you need to know what you missed. Either way, this book is essential reading. Donovan X. Ramsey tells the story of the crack era—its causes, victims, and survivors—with insight and compassion. If you’re anything like me, you won’t soon forget the characters on these pages.”—James Forman Jr., Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Locking Up Our Own

“Beautifully composed and carefully researched, When Crack Was King is a thoroughgoing survey of the crack epidemic. Since I lived through it, I thought I knew about this period—until I read this clear-eyed book.”—Ibram X. Kendi, author of #1 New York Times bestseller How to Be an Antiracist

“Passionate, important reportage on a tragic era in American history from an author who lived through it.”Kirkus Reviews, starred review
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About the Author

Donovan X. Ramsey
Donovan X. Ramsey is a journalist, author, and voice on issues of race, politics, and patterns of power in America. His reporting has appeared in The New York TimesThe AtlanticGQWSJEbony, and Essence. He has been a staff reporter at the Los Angeles TimesNewsOne, and theGrio and has served as an editor at The Marshall Project and Complex. Ramsey holds a master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Morehouse College. More by Donovan X. Ramsey
Decorative Carat