Darcy Ribeiro was the son of Reginaldo Ribeiro dos Santos and of Josefina Augusta da Silveira. He completed his primary and secondary education in the town of his birth, Montes Claros, at the Grupo Escolar Gonçalves Chaves and at the Ginásio Episcopal de Montes Claros. He is best known for development work in the areas of education, sociology and anthropology and for being, along with his friend and colleague Anísio Teixeira, one of the founders of the University of Brasília (Universidade de Brasília) in the early 1960s. He also served as the first rector of that university. He was the founder of the State University of Norte Fluminense (Universidade Estadual do Norte Fluminense) as well. He wrote numerous books, many of them about the indigenous populations of Brazil.
During the first mandate of governor Leonel Brizola in Rio de Janeiro (state) (1983–1987), Darcy Ribeiro created, planned and directed the implementation of the Integrated Centres for Public Instruction (Centros Integrados de Ensino Público), a visionary and revolutionary pedagogical project of assistance for children, including recreational and cultural activities beyond formal instruction – making concrete the projects envisioned decades earlier by Anísio Teixeira. Long before politicians incorporated the importance of education for the development of Brazil into their discourse, Darcy Ribeiro and Leonel Brizola had already developed these ideals.
In the elections of 1986, Ribeiro was the Democratic Labour Party PDT candidate for the governorship of Rio de Janeiro (state), running against Fernando Gabeira (at that time affiliated with the Workers’ Party PT), Agnaldo Timóteo of the Social Democratic Party (PDS) and Moreira Franco of the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB). Riberio was defeated, being unable to overcome the high approval rating of Moreira who was elected due to the popularity of the then-recent currency reform, the Cruzado Plan (Plano Cruzado). Another defeat was in 1994, when he was Brizola's running-mate in presidential election; Darcy Ribeiro was also chief of staff (Ministro-chefe da Casa Civil) in the cabinet of President João Goulart, vice-governor of Rio de Janeiro (state) from 1983 to 1987 and exercised the mandate of senator from Rio de Janeiro from 1991 until his death – which was proceeded by a long battle with cancer that emotionally touched all of Brazilian society: Darcy Ribeiro, ever the ardent and controversial defender of his ideas, received during his long illness recognition and admiration not only from friends but also from adversaries.