Harris, Franklyn Allen [Tex] (1938–2020)

By: Gabrielle Esparza

Type: Biography

Published: January 27, 2021

Updated: January 27, 2021

Franklyn Allen “Tex” Harris, U. S. diplomat and human rights advocate, was born on May 13, 1938, in Glendale, California, and raised in Dallas, Texas. He attended North Dallas High School, where the six-feet, seven-inch Harris competed in track, was an All-State basketball player, a member of the Pan American Club, and a member of the National Honor Society. In 1960 he received his B.A. from Princeton University. He later enrolled at the University of Texas Law School and graduated in 1965.

During his education at the University of Texas, Harris served as leader of a group of law students working for civil rights. This experience first engaged him in human rights advocacy, and he continued to champion such causes throughout his career. After his graduation from UT Law, Harris joined the U. S. State Department in 1965. He married Jeanie L. Roeder on June 25, 1966, in California.

Harris held posts in Venezuela, Argentina, South Africa, and Australia throughout his thirty-five-year U. S. Foreign Service career. Of these appointments, his position as the Human Rights Officer at the U.S. embassy in Argentina from 1977 to 1979 defined his legacy. Through his diplomatic post, Harris helped implement President Jimmy Carter’s human rights policy. The armed forces had seized control of Argentina in March 1976 and stifled dissent through forced disappearances and killings. When Harris joined the embassy in July 1977, military repression was at its height. Reports from Buenos Aires led the U.S. government to consider Argentina the most flagrant human rights violator in Latin America.

As the Human Rights Officer, Harris opened the U.S. embassy in Buenos Aires to victims and their families in order to receive their testimonies. He documented reported cases of disappearance, detention, and torture on index cards and created a database of 9,000 missing persons. From 1977 to 1979 Harris filed 13,500 official complaints on human rights violations. His Foreign Service evaluation acknowledged that Harris’s reports “had direct and continuous bearing on the policy the United States adopt[ed].”

During his time in Argentina, Tex Harris did not limit his advocacy to compiling information and writing embassy reports. He also encouraged the work of grassroots organizations in Argentina. He regularly met with the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, who organized in 1977 and marched every Thursday near the presidential palace to demand information about their missing children. Attending these marches, Harris shared his business card and urged the mothers to come to the U.S. embassy to tell their story.

Harris’s involvement in human rights reporting came at a great personal cost. Although the Carter administration had emphasized human rights in foreign policy, few within the embassy supported Harris. Many of his superiors wanted to prioritize commercial relations over human rights, and this led to many conflicts within the embassy. As a result, Harris began sending his reports to Washington through the “dissent channel” in order to ensure they reached President Carter’s Human Rights Secretary at the State Department.

In 1979 Harris returned to Washington. His frequent fights with the U.S. ambassador to Argentina gravely affected his performance evaluations, and he nearly lost his job for insubordination. Although Harris remained in the State Department, his career did not advance for nearly seven years. The turning point came after journalist Bill Moyers aired a special on Harris and his work in Argentina. Following the show’s airing, the State Department received two bags of mail in support of Harris and reviewed his file. He received a promotion.

For his work in Argentina, Harris eventually received recognition. In 1984 the American Foreign Service Association awarded him the William R. Rivkin Award for his “bureaucratic courage to stand up for what was right.” He also earned the State Department’s highest medal, the Distinguished Honor Award, in 1993. In 2004 the Argentine government honored Harris for his human rights work with their highest award granted to a foreigner.

Harris later served in South Africa during that country’s transition from apartheid in the 1980s. He also worked in the Bureau of Economic Affairs, as an attorney for the White House, and as an environmental assistant. Harris also completed two terms as the president of the American Foreign Service Association from 1993 to 1997. Partnering with this organization in 1999, he established the F. Allen “Tex” Harris Award for Constructive Dissent by a Foreign Service Specialist. The award recognizes those who “take an unpopular stand . . . that involves some risk.”

Through his service, Harris left a legacy of defending human rights even when such actions carried personal danger and consequences. “Tex risked his career and his life to tell Washington and the world what was happening,” recalled Robert Cox, the former editor-in-chief of the Buenos Aires Herald. “His decision to take a stand … saved lives and eventually led to the downfall of the dictatorship.”

F. Allen ‘Tex’ Harris died at the age of eighty-one on February 23, 2020, in Fairfax, Virginia. He was survived by his wife Jeannie and their three children—Scott, Julie, and Clark.

Martin Edwin Andersen, “Legacy of Late State Department Human Rights Champion Tex Harris Reverberates Today,” Just Security, March 3, 2020 (https://www.justsecurity.org/68980/legacy-of-late-state-department-human-rights-champion-tex-harris-reverberates-today/), accessed January 16, 2021. Buenos Aires Times, February 25, 29, 2020. “Constructive Dissent Awards,” American Foreign Service Association, March 29, 2020 (http://www.afsa.org/constructive-dissent-awards), accessed January 16, 2021. “F. Allen ‘Tex’ Harris: President, Secretary, AFSA,” The Foreign Service Group—Texas, March 13, 2020 (http://www.tfsg.org/speakers/TexHarris051896.pdf), accessed January 16, 2021. Carlos Osorio, “A Human Rights Hero: The Legacy of Franklin Allen (Tex) Harris (1938–2020),” National Security Archives, March 10, 2020 (https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/briefing-book/2020-03-09/memoriam-tex-harris), accessed January 16, 2021. Stewart M. Powell, “U.N. Association Honors Texan for Human Rights,” December 13, 2013. “President Obama Remembers Ex-Diplomat Tex Harris,” Diploundit, March 24, 2016 (https://diplopundit.net/2016/03/25/president-obama-remembers-ex-usembargentina-diplomat-tex-harris/), accessed January 16, 2021. Kathryn Sikkink, Mixed Signals: U.S. Human Rights Policy and Latin America (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2004). Washington Post, February 29, 2020.

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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Gabrielle Esparza, “Harris, Franklyn Allen [Tex],” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 15, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/harris-franklyn-allen-tex.

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January 27, 2021
January 27, 2021

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