One of the many strengths of this novel is the number of minor characters who are brought into the story. Harper Lee creates the whole of Maycomb county through these people and their distinct personalities. The Cunninghams are introduced in Chapter 2, and they reappear several times in the story, most dramatically in regard to Tom Robinson's imprisonment, trial, and conviction.
The Cunninghams are introduced to us in the person of Walter, Scout's friend and classmate. This description of Walter reveals a great deal about the family and their circumstances:
Walter Cunningham's face told everybody in the first grade he had hookworms. His absence of shoes told us how he got them. People caught hookworms going barefooted in barnyards and hog wallows. If Walter had owned any shoes he would have worn them the first day of school and then discarded them until mid-winter. He did have on a clean shirt and neatly mended overalls.
The Cunninghams are poor country folks, but they are proud people. They do the best they can with what they have. Walter has no shoes, but his shirt has been washed and his worn overalls have been mended.
At lunch time, Walter is too proud to admit he has no lunch. When Miss Caroline, meaning well, asks if he has forgotten his lunch, Walter doesn't answer. He stares straight ahead, and a muscle works in his "skinny jaw." Walter doesn't want to tell the truth, but he doesn't want to lie. He has no doubt been taught better than to lie, but his pride prevails. He tells the white lie. When Miss Caroline then tries to lend him a quarter so that he can buy his lunch, Walter won't take it. He is firm, but respectful:
Walter shook his head. "Nome thank you ma'am," he drawled softly.
Miss Caroline's continued efforts to make Walter take the money prompt Scout to explain the Cunninghams to her:
The Cunninghams never took anything they can't pay back--no church baskets and no scrip stamps. They never took anything off of anybody, they get along on what they have. They don't have much, but they get along on it.
In his encounter with Miss Caroline, Walter's appearance and his proud, polite behavior reflect his family heritage. We learn a great deal about the Cunninghams through this little boy.