Simon Balto

Position title: College of Letters and Science Mary Herman Rubinstein Professor of History


Phone: 608.263.1812

Office: 4134 Mosse Humanities
Mailbox: 4030 Mosse Humanities

Simon Balto headshot


I am a historian of the twentieth-century United States, with a particular focus and expertise in African American history. While I am interested in the history of social movements, urban history, and a range of other subjects, I am especially interested in the history of the criminal punishment system in the United States: how it’s been constructed; what and who gets criminalized and punished within it; what acts of harm are deemed non-criminal when committed by certain people; and how the institutions that constitute the system come to bear unevenly across society.

My first book, Occupied Territory: Policing Black Chicago from Red Summer to Black Power, was published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2019. The winner of the Benjamin Hooks Institute’s National Book Award for the best book in civil rights history, as well as the Union League Club of Chicago’s award for the best book on Chicago history, Occupied Territory explores the twentieth-century transformation of the Chicago Police Department into an institution whose most important features were its massive racial disparities in general and its profound anti-Blackness in particular. Largely focused on the late 1910s to the early 1970s, the book challenges conventional wisdom about the policing crisis in the United States, looking back well before the federal drug and crime wars of the late twentieth century that many Americans assume to be the crisis’s starting point. Instead, I explore how local politicians and police officials built a huge, and hugely racially repressive, local police apparatus mostly on their own in the decades before those wars.

I am currently at work on several new projects. The first (under contract with Liveright/Norton) is a history of white mob violence from Reconstruction to the civil rights era, the relentless decriminalization of such terrorism when it took place, and the ways that such violence shaped the nation socially, culturally, politically, and economically. The second (under contract with Haymarket Books), titled “I am a Revolutionary”: The Political Life and Legacy of Fred Hampton, is a biography of the life and political afterlife of Fred Hampton, the organizer and leader of the Illinois Black Panther Party who was murdered by the FBI and the Chicago Police Department in 1969 at the age of twenty-one. The third, titled “Racial Framing: Blackface Criminals in Jim Crow America,” explores the history of white people donning blackface when committing crimes, black condemnations of and campaigns against the practice (including by Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells), and what that history shows us about racial condemnation and racist conceptions of criminality in the United States. I am also currently co-editing a volume with Erik Gellman and Marcia Walker-McWilliams that’s tentatively titled Revisiting the Black Metropolis: New Histories of Black Chicago, which is under contract with the University of Illinois Press.

I’m a steady believer in the idea that those historians who are so inclined to be public-facing have a lot to offer in such a capacity. As a result, I do a lot of work that involves engaging the public through written commentary and TV/radio appearances. Thus, in addition to my scholarly writing for journals like The Journal of African American History, The Journal of Urban History, and Labor, among others, I’m a regular contributor for The Guardian and have written for TIME, The Washington Post, The Baffler, and The Progressive, among others. I’ve also done TV, radio, or podcast interviews with the BBC World News, CNBC, Al-Jazeera, and Intercepted, among others, as well as dozens of interviews with print journalists around the world.

I’ll be on leave for the 2021-2022 academic year, on fellowship through the National Endowment for the Humanities.


Ph.D., History, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2015
M.A., African-American Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2010
B.A., History, University of Wisconsin-Madison


Selected Publications


  • “White Rage, White Liberals, and the Making of the Second Ghetto,’” Journal of Urban History 46:2 (March 2020): 511-515
  • “The Carceral State’s Origins, from Above and Below,” Labor: Studies in Working-Class History 14:4 (December 2017): 69-74
  • “‘Occupied Territory’: Police Repression and Black Resistance in Postwar Milwaukee,” Journal of African American History 98:2 (Spring 2013): 229-252


  • “We are told America is living through a ‘racial reckoning.’ Is it really?” The Guardian, May 25, 2021
  • “Free as in Fred,” The Baffler no. 57 (May 2021)
  • “Were Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office a success? Our panel’s verdict,” The Guardian, April 30, 2021
  • “There’s hope for racial justice in America. But it comes from the people—not the courts,” The Guardian, April 22, 2021
  • “This Much Is Clear: Derek Chauvin’s Trial Won’t Change American Policing,” The Guardian, April 15, 2021
  • “The Police and Black Rebellion — A Review of American on Fire,” The Metropole: The Official Blog of the Urban History Association, April 15, 2021
  • “What ‘Defund the Police’ Really Means,” Washington Post, February 9, 2021
  • “How to Defund the Police,” Public Books, November 20, 2020
  • “The Blues of 1919: On History and Poetry,” Process: A Blog for American History, July 16, 2020
  • “Occupied Territory: An Author’s Response”, Black Perspectives, April 10, 2020
  • “Contesting Police Power: A Conversation between Simon Balto and Max Felker-Kantor,” Radical History Review’s “The Abusable Past,” July 11, 2019
  • “Concerning David Garrow’s Allegations Against Dr. King,” MLK50: Justice through Journalism, June 6, 2019
  • “What Was Missing from Memphis on the 50th Anniversary of Martin Luther King’s Assassination,” TIME, April 5, 2018
  • “Commemorations in Memphis Show that How We Remember Martin Luther King Jr. Is Changing,” TIME, April 4, 2018
  • “Why Police Cheered Trump’s Dark Speech,” Washington Post, July 31, 2017
  • “Chicago’s History of Stop-and-Frisk Laws Is a Warning,” TIME, September 2016

Invited Talks & Research Presentations

  • Carnegie Mellon University, 2021
  • DePaul University, 2021
  • Southwestern University, 2021
  • The University of Illinois-Springfield, 2021
  • The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2021
  • James Madison’s Montpelier Center for the Constitution, 2020
  • Lehman Center for American History at Columbia University, 2020
  • University of Wisconsin-Madison Havens Wright Center, 2020
  • Stony Brook University, 2020
  • Arizona State University, 2020
  • Washington & Lee University, 2020
  • Indiana University, 2020
  • University of Rhode Island (postponed due to COVID-19), 2020
  • University of Tennessee-Knoxville (postponed due to COVID-19), 2020
  • Rhodes College (postponed due to COVID-19), 2020
  • The Mayor of Chicago’s “Solutions Toward Ending Poverty” summit, 2020
  • University of Illinois-Chicago, 2020
  • University of Northern Iowa, 2020
  • Ball State University, 2020
  • The University of Chicago, 2020
  • Dominican University, 2020
  • MLK Day Commission of Appleton, Wisconsin, 2020
  • New York University, 2019
  • Barnard College, 2019
  • The Chicago History Museum, 2019
  • The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, 2019
  • The Newberry Library, 2019
  • The Mayor of Chicago’s 1919 Red Summer Commemoration, 2019
  • The Chicago Public Library (Harold Washington Library Center), 2019

Selected Awards

  • Fellowship, National Endowment for the Humanities, 2021-22
  • Fellowship, American Council of Learned Societies, 2020-21
  • Fellowship, University of Wisconsin-Madison Institute for Research in the Humanities, 2020-21
  • Andrew W. Mellon Academic Research Fellowship, The HistoryMakers, 2020 (summer)
  • Fellowship, Benjamin V. Cohen Peace Fund, 2017-18
  • Fellowship, National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Stipends, 2017 (summer)

History Courses

  • History 102 – American History, From the Civil War to the Present – Syllabus 2022 (pdf)
  • History 227 – The Making of Black Lives Matter: A History of a Movement – Syllabus 2023 (pdf)