Otis Hairston Jr. was born in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1946. His father, Rev. Otis Hairston Sr., was a civil rights activist and pastor of Greensboro’s Shiloh Baptist Church. The younger Hairston participated in his first demonstration as a senior in high school in 1963. He continued to actively participate in demonstrations, and was arrested twice: once, for his participation in the sit-down in the square, and also at the Carolina Theater. He was one of many demonstrators jailed in the polio hospital and processed at the Coliseum in 1963.
Hairston attended North Carolina A&T State University and then pursued a career as a photographer, photographing famous civil rights personalities including Martin Luther King, Coretta Scott King, Jesse Jackson, and Nelson Mandela. He has also photographed famous African Americans such as Alex Haley, Maya Angelou, and Arthur Ashe. Hairston has served as photographer for NC A&T State University, Bennett College, the Greensboro Times and Ebony magazine. In 2003, he published a pictorial book entitled Greensboro North Carolina. In 2004, Hairston served as a member of the Greensboro Bicentennial Commission.