Founded by John O’Neal, Gilbert Moses, and Doris Derby at Tougaloo College in Madison County, Mississippi in 1963, the Free Southern Theater (FST) was a cultural, performing arts and educational extension of the Civil Rights and Black Arts Movements. Although it ceased operating in 1980 due to low financing as well as administrative and creative differences, the FST was highly significant in developing the Black Theater Movement in the United States.
The uniting of O’Neal, Moses and Derby was natural. On the information page of the Freedom Southern Theater of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, their commonalities are highlighted. At SNCC Digital Gateway, it states, “The trio was drawn together by their artistic and movement backgrounds. Derby, who studied African diasporic art and culture at Hunter College in New York City, was a SNCC field secretary in Southwest, Georgia before heading up an adult literacy project in Jackson, Mississippi. O’Neal was a recent graduate from Southern Illinois University where he performed in a number of plays. After graduation, he dropped his plans to move to New York in order to work with SNCC full-time in Mississippi. Moses was the most established actor of the group, having already performed in off-Broadway productions at the age of 21. He was working as a reporter for the Mississippi Free Press, a movement paper based in Jackson, where he met O’Neal and Derby.”