Hairston's career in Hollywood spans over fifty years. Most of his work was behind the scenes as a composer and arranger. He wrote the song "Amen" for the 1963 film "Lilies of the Field" in which Sidney Poiter won an Academy Award for Best Actor and also dubbed Poitier's singing in the film.
Hairston was born July 9, 1901 in Belew's Creek, North Carolina, and graduated cum laude from Tufts University with a degree in music; he later attended Julliard. While working as a choir director in Harlem he began working with Hall Johnson on musical arrangements for Broadway shows, and in 1936 moved to Los Angeles to work on the film "Green Pastures". He soon became one of the founding members of the Screen Actors' Guild.
His acting credits include roles in "Amos 'n' Andy" on radio and television, early Tarzan movies, films "To Kill a Mockingbird", "In the Heat of the Night", "The Alamo" and "Lady Sings the Blues", and the television series "That's My Mama". He said this about his experience as an African American actor:
When I worked on Amos 'n' Andy I couldn't let it bother me that the other black characters were played by whites because what could I do? It offended me, but the only way that a black man could get a role was to go ahead and take whatever the white man would give him because the pictures and studios belonged to him. I didn't make any fuss. If I had, they would have called me a communist and ran me out of Hollywood.Hairston also continued his career in the musical side of the film industry, often collaborating with composer Dmitri Tiompkin, composing and arranging over 300 gospel songs in films such as "Lost Horizon" and "Tie a Yellow Ribbon". He died on January 18, 2000 at the age of 98.